Raleigh, N.C. — Thursday marked the first day on the job for the new leader of the Wake County Public School System.
Superintendent Jim Merrill, who was hired in June, toured area schools and met with reporters, saying student achievement is his primary focus for the state's largest school district. He also said the passage of a school construction bond is "critical."
But Merrill shied away from questions about the state budget's impact on Wake County classrooms and Gov. Pat McCrory's proposals to create a fund to reward "master teachers" and cut down on standardized testing.
Merrill said he was still getting up to speed on those issues and didn't want to comment.
Merrill worked in Wake County schools for 16 years as an English teacher and administrator in the 1970s and 1980s. He most recently was superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, where he was named Virginia's 2013 superintendent of the year.
He said in June that he has positive memories of working in Wake County, where much of his philosophy as an educator was formed. Yet, he recognizes that he comes into a district facing enrollment growth and budget challenges.
He also must work with a school board that has been polarized in recent years and that has battled with the Wake County Board of Commissioners over funding and the control of school buildings. The two boards are trying to persuade voters to approve an $810 million school construction bond this fall.
"I'm either naive, completely insensitive or I just plain don't feel the political atmosphere," he said. "I'm an academic leader. I'm not a political leader, and as much as I might have to step into political arenas, that's not my comfort. That's not where I choose to go."
Merrill said he'd rather be in the schools, working with principals, teachers and students. Asked about North Carolina ranking 48th in the nation for teacher pay, Merrill said that's the "wrong position to be on that list."
"I think teachers are carrying the proverbial Sisyphus rock harder and more difficult than they ever have. It's not just Virginia or North Carolina, I think it's nationally," he said.
"They are whipsawed constantly with changes in legislative policy at the state level and at the federal level. Seldom is something removed from expectation, accountability or the teacher's plate, and yet we squeeze more onto it."
Two members of the school board voted for another superintendent candidate, but board Chairman Keith Sutton said Merrill is the right man for the job.
"You can't win superintendent of the year in two different states and get those resting on your laurels," Sutton said in June. "Obviously, he has been innovative and moving with trends in education."
Merrill succeeds Tony Tata, who was fired as superintendent last fall and now heads the state Department of Transportation.
Under the terms of Merrill's four-year contract, he will earn $275,000 a year.