Wake County's new schools superintendent is a familiar face who has spent the past 30 years educating local students.
The Wake County school board turned Wednesday to Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore to be the new leader of the largest school district in North Carolina and the 15th largest district in the nation. Moore, who has worked in Wake since 1988 and overseen academics for the past seven years, will become the district's first permanent female superintendent and first Hispanic superintendent.
"It's hard for me to explain just how thankful I am to lead this district because I know that it is one of the best school districts in America," Moore, 54, said in an emotional ceremony before a packed room of school employees, family members and friends.
Moore replaces Jim Merrill, who retired Feb. 1 after having led the district since August 2013. Del Burns, who had been Wake's superintendent from 2006 to 2010, has served as interim superintendent while the school board conducted a secretive national job search.
Moore's annual salary is $274,000 and she's under contract through June 2021. Merrill had been making $303,091 a year.
The last time a woman led Wake was in 2013, when Moore served as interim superintendent for two months until Merrill started. Donna Hargens served as interim superintendent for most of 2010.
During her speech, Moore thanked her 87-year-old mother in Spanish for sacrificing so much for her.
School board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said it's highly significant for Wake to pick a superintendent who is both breaking the glass ceiling for women and reflective of the growing Hispanic population in North Carolina.
"It is a monumental occasion to say it's our 10th superintendent and for the first time it's a woman in a time where we're talking about women across the country leading," Johnson-Hostler said in an interview.
The board began the search soon after Merrill announced in November that he planned to retire. But it differed from the last search done in 2013, where Merrill and the other two finalists were announced publicly and met with the community before the vote.
The school district has said 20 people applied for the position but didn't release any information on the other applicants. The N.C. School Boards Association, which was hired to conduct the search, said that keeping the names confidential would improve the quality of applicants.
In lieu of an open search process, the school district sought feedback in a community survey that drew more than 1,200 responses. Common themes among the responses were that the next superintendent should be a former teacher who values diversity, stands up to the state legislature and wants to stay in the job for several years.
Johnson-Hostler said that the board went through three rounds of interviews with Moore competing against candidates from outside the district throughout the entire process.
"We were absolutely open to anyone being superintendent of Wake County Public Schools," Johnson-Hostler said.
In hiring Moore, the school board signaled both its support of the current direction of the district and its confidence in a leader who is well known to the community.
"This is a long time coming," school board member Keith Sutton said after the unanimous vote. "I’ve admired your work from close and afar.”
Moore, who was the first to graduate from college in her family, started her career as a French teacher in Nash-Rocky Mount schools. But Moore has said that her path to the classroom was influenced by how as a high school student she spent time working with at-risk students at an elementary school in Charlotte.
"That experience just gave me a sense of what my future might be like," Moore said in a 2007 interview.
Moore came to Wake in 1988 to teach at Enloe High School in Raleigh. She would go on to become an assistant principal at Enloe and Apex high schools.
In 2000, Moore became the principal of Sanderson High School in Raleigh. She had the job of helping the school's faculty and students rebuild their connections to the community after having spent time at Wakefield High School while the Sanderson campus was rebuilt.
Moore's efforts were recognized in 2007 when she was named Wake County's Principal of the Year.
A year later, Moore was promoted to area superintendent for the Central Wake region, where she oversaw many of the schools in Raleigh.
In 2011, Superintendent Tony Tata promoted Moore to deputy superintendent for academic advancement, a position she retained when Merrill was hired in 2013. Moore's position has put her in charge of overseeing how Wake's 160,000 students are taught during a time of changing curriculum and education standards.
"You should relish the moment," Johnson-Hostler told Moore. "It’s absolutely the pinnacle of your career.”
Moore will be in charge of a district that has a $1.6 billion annual operating budget with more than 19,000 employees. The school system is the third biggest employer in Wake County, behind only Duke University Health System and the state.
Moore steps into the superintendent's job at a challenging time in Wake's history. School and community leaders tout Wake as being one of the best large school systems in the nation but have said the district is challenged by not getting enough state and local funding.
The school board is asking for a record $58.9 million local funding increase this year, with school leaders saying a $48 million boost is needed to just maintain current level of services. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is considering a recommendation from County Manager David Ellis to provide a $30.1 million increase.
Wake is also increasingly competing for students with charter schools, private schools and homeschools that combined are growing at a rate as fast, if not faster, than the school district. The competition has caused Wake to try to market individual schools to make them more attractive and to cut back on how many students are reassigned to different schools each year.
Growth is slowing in the district, but Wake is still projected to add 17,639 students in the next seven years. Moore will help promote a new school construction bond referendum that's expected to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Moore said she would work to build partnerships with the community and help carry out the district's goal of ensuring every student will be challenged and engaged academically.
"I’m ready to go out and listen a lot to what folks have to say because I think more than anything out of this office is an obligation to be the feet, the voice, the heart of 160,000-plus students, 20,000 employees and the countless members of our community who have our back everyday," Moore said.