Merrianne Dyer originally turned down the offer to be Gainesville City Schools superintendent, and even six years later claims she was not qualified for the role.
“I did not think I had the background or experience,” she said. “Well, I didn’t have the background or experience. I didn’t think that our employees and community would have confidence that I could do the job at such a critical time.”
But early on, she felt the support that gave her the confidence she needed to keep going.
“Fairly quickly, I could feel the community support. I realized that, if they thought I could ... well, perception is 80 percent of reality,” she said, breaking into laughter. “That was my biggest fear to start with, that I couldn’t do it and the community people that were working here knew I couldn’t do it, so they would feel like they weren’t being led.”
Except, they knew she could and wanted her as a leader.
That sense of community carried her through the years, all the way to Tuesday night when hundreds turned out for Dyer’s retirement reception at the Gainesville Civic Center. More than 250 responded to the community reception at 6 p.m., with teachers and staff members turning out for an earlier event.
“I am overwhelmed,” Dyer said, her voice breaking. “I could not begin to name the names of all of you and all of the ways that you’re special to me. I am so proud of the work that we’ve all done together over the last few years, and leave knowing that things will only get better.”
She pulled out a letter a young student of hers had written when she had only been in the superintendent’s position for a year.
“It just says it all,” Dyer said, reading from the paper. “‘Dear Dr. Dyer, thank you for being here for us. We thank you every day. It is a good thing that you are still living.’”
The guests erupted into laughter, but there were times in Dyer’s early tenure as superintendent when she really needed those simple words of encouragement.
She agreed to serve as interim superintendent in July 2008, when the Board of Education fired former Superintendent Steven Ballowe. She had been Fair Street School principal since 2001, after being at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy for around five years.
Dyer had joined the Gainesville system in 1986 as a teacher at Fair Street; she came as a 1970 Gainesville High graduate. It was never her goal to be superintendent.
“The agreement that they made (when she became superintendent) was if I would just come help,” Dyer said. “Then, in October they would open it up and do a (superintendent) search, and then I could go back to Fair Street. But I knew when I left Fair Street that I probably wouldn’t be back. It’s not a good thing to go and then come back, unless it’s a very short amount of time. I just had a feeling I wouldn’t be back.”
It was a difficult moment, mostly because she had anticipated remaining Fair Street School principal for another year and then beginning to teach at the college level while also doing some consulting work.
But there was a mess at the central office, and Dyer quickly realized she was needed. The school system was in a financial deficit. Board members described that period as incredibly tense.
“I was on the Board (of Education) for four months before we found out that we were in basically a 10 percent of our budget deficit,” Chairwoman Maria Calkins said. “That was an emergency situation, and then we had to hire a superintendent right away and trust had eroded in the system. When the board met to decide what to do, it was just an obvious decision that Merrianne Dyer, even though she had never really expressed any interest in being a superintendent, we knew that she was the person that had been a Red Elephant since the beginning.”
While she may have been a Red Elephant, Dyer knew the role of superintendent would be difficult to fill.
“I was not prepared, nor really qualified,” she said. “The upside was during the time we were going into deficit, and the dysfunction at the district office, our schools were somewhat isolated from that. They were still thriving.
“The most important thing is how the kids are doing, and how the teachers are doing with them. So that was OK, if I could figure out a way to support them financially.”
For that, she turned to Chief Financial Officer Janet Allison, who was a newcomer to the system herself.
“The other thing was learning what I needed to know and finding the people to help me,” Dyer said. “That was really key. Janet had come in only six months prior to me, and she had come in as a consultant to help us implement a software system. She was a CPA but she was doing it on contract services.”
Allison quickly realized what a mess the financial situation was, with a more than $6 million deficit. In the beginning, the two women would meet at 5:30 a.m. for a long time to go over the budget.
“We were both there early and it was just a good time to get together, before the day started going crazy,” Allison recalled. “She jumped in there headlong.”
Early on, the two signed up for financial classes to better their understanding in developing the school budget.
“Just prior to them making her the permanent superintendent, we started going to a finance institute in Macon,” Allison said. “I got so tickled because I heard her say one time to somebody, ‘She’s making me do math! I always paid for somebody to do my math for me and she’s making me do spreadsheets.’”
It’s easy to look back and laugh now, but Dyer said the best thing for her to do was surround herself with experienced people who could help her get her footing in her new position.
“I reached out to people that I knew had seen a lot and done a lot,” she said, listing mentors such as Gwinnett County’s Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, former White County Superintendent Paul Shaw and Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield.
“I reached out to everyone, and everyone was willing to be helpful,” she said. “They were bedrock people. And Mr. Wilbanks, mostly, encouraged me. He said ‘You will learn what you need to learn.’
“So I took that day-to-day approach. ‘This is what I’ve got to know right now to do this.’ And then you learn that, and then you move on. You just kind of plow through it.”
Today, the system is no longer in a deficit. In fact, an $8 million fund balance is projected to begin the 2015 fiscal year.
“Her first six or eight months in office, I called her Dr. No,” board member Sammy Smith said. Smith went through Gainesville schools with Dyer, graduating with her in 1970. “‘Do you think we should do this?’ ‘No.’ She was trying to stabilize a community of professionals, and it worked.”
Through her career, she’s most proud of helping Fair Street School gain International Baccalaureate status. As superintendent, she points to the updated facilities as being a huge achievement.
“I had worked here for 20-something years and we were growing so fast that we could never catch up on repairing our facilities,” she said. “There were schools literally falling apart.”
Now, facilities are all up to date and “in good shape,” Dyer said. She pointed to the construction of the P.K. Dixon Field House and, especially, the opening of the new Fair Street School as the crowning achievements.
Through the ups and downs, she remains most at home in a teaching role. In retirement, she plans to do some consulting work — it’s not quite like being in a classroom, but she enjoys helping adults with professional learning.
She will be doing some contract work with the National Dropout Prevention Center, as well as some work with Scholastic on its initiatives for family and community engagement.
“I’m not in a college classroom, but I’m still in that learning community kind of thing,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to that, and see, I would not have those opportunities if I had not been superintendent. It put me in a position to meet and connect with people, so I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity.”
Outside of that, she’s most looking forward to spending time with family, especially her grandchildren.
“My daughter lives in New Orleans,” she said. “I want to go to the whole JazzFest. I’ve never been able to go because it’s always in the middle of (standardized testing).
“I’m really just looking forward to having more balance. And (being) able to spend a little bit more time with my family, spend a little bit more time in sports and things that I love.”
When the school year is over, Dyer will continue working with future Superintendent Wanda Creel on the transition; Creel’s contract officially begins July 1.
Those who know Dyer best say it’s going to be a shift for her to be outside of a classroom.
“She truly, truly believes in everybody,” her daughter Jennifer Dyer Buddin said. “Where other people might see obstacles, she’s always seen opportunities and she’s not just like that in her work, she’s like that in her life.
“She has lent her support to others forever and ever. All that time, there’s always been a constant in her life and that’s been taking care of kids. Just taking care of kids — her own and other people’s just as lovingly as she took care of her own.”