Skip to Content

Frontline Fellows: Q&A with Danny Merck, Pickens County School District Superintendent

Committed to progress in South Carolina, fellows of The Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative (DLI) seek to develop real solutions for real social issues. As the COVID-19 outbreak has drastically changed the way we live, these state leaders are quickly adapting the ways they support the communities they serve. We’re shining the spotlight on their exemplary leadership during this unprecedented time in our new Frontline Fellows series.

See all Frontline Fellows interviews

In this interview, we speak with Pickens County School District Superintendent Danny Merck, a 2018 Riley Fellow. As South Carolina schools remain closed for the rest of the 2019-20 school year, Merck is pouring his energy into the holistic needs of both students and employees.   

In the early stages of the outbreak, you went to great lengths to implement a contact tracing plan for your 2,300 employees. As the outbreak worsened and schools closed, you’ve remained committed to protecting the jobs of your employees. By prioritizing the wellbeing of your employees during this time, how do you hope your actions will uphold the values of school district and its commitment to students?

The first goal I have is to build people. It’s about “who,” not “what.” If you protect the people you hire, they’re always going to be more motivated to serve the people they work with, the students.

We have made sure that our plan was not built on the production of the employee but instead on the wellbeing of the employee. In the long run it makes you more productive and a happier person to work in our school district, so the value of prioritizing people and making sure that they know we care about them and their wellbeing has paid off.

We’ve had virtually no complaints within the system because basically anybody who is still reporting to a physical workplace is only reporting every other week. For instance, to meet the nutritional needs of students while school is closed, we served 341,000 meals in six weeks. We are providing breaks to cafeteria workers and bus drivers who are working hard to prepare and deliver these meals. Teaching assistants and office staff are volunteering to work in the cafeterias and deliver meals as well.

An altered work schedule has allowed them to stay healthy and allowed us to track who’s working and where they’re working and at what time. We’ve shown a commitment to our students by making sure we keep our employees healthy, who in turn are able to provide better instruction.

School is a haven for children, particularly those who are at-risk. How is Pickens County School District addressing the holistic needs of its 16,000 students?

We’re making individual checks with children, which can range from a live phone call to a Webex teaching assignment. No matter what, we’re checking on the children’s wellbeing. We’re encouraging hands-on activities and going outside. There are always going to be reading and writing assignments for students. When a teacher asks, “How are you doing? How’s everything at home? Are you being fed?,” those questions show a positive relationship, so that’s how we’re meeting the holistic needs.

Tell us a little about the meal delivery program that the district has instituted during this time. What are you doing to make sure students are fed?

We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure our bus routes are going to the homes that need it the most. We don’t stop at every house, but a lot of times, a bus driver goes by a house that wants or needs food and blows the horn before reaching the designated stop. You may have 10 families coming to one stop. The first week required a lot of adjustments. By the third week, we landed in a good spot to where we were serving about 12,500 meals a day.

Many are turning toward hope as a source of comfort during this time. In your work as superintendent, what have you witnessed in past weeks that has made you hopeful?

We have repurposed workers, so teachers and many other positions — administrators, coaches — volunteer their time. At no time have we had a shortage of workers. As a matter of fact, each week we’ve had to turn away a tremendous amount of workers because we have more than we need.

As superintendent, I’ve been very encouraged by the selflessness and dedication of our workforce. They’ve gone out of their way. They’ve volunteered to drive buses, go to churches, get on the buses to deliver the meals, and come into the cafeteria. We have two principals running a daily agenda of who is working and where they are. We’re trying to space it out where workers work a week at a time, so the next week they’re given a week off and they remain healthy. That’s extremely encouraging to me.

We’ve had more volunteers offer through the churches, and we’ve just haven’t been able to use them because our workforce is plenty to do what we’re doing. The churches in Pickens County have been great. Our businesses have been great. As superintendent, I just couldn’t be happier right now with the amount of support we’ve had from parents, teachers, employees, and the community. The ones who need it the most have been served adequately with food. It just sets the tone for the county when that happens.

As we continue to make sense of the timeline of the COVID-19 outbreak, what are the key considerations that educational leaders like yourself will need to prioritize in addressing learning loss and the widening achievement gap?

The early learners, I think, is where you have to make sure you take care of that gap. Most educators are very concerned about the summer reading loss, and now you’re talking about the summer and an additional two or three months’ worth of a loss. How do you prevent that gap with your early learners?

Our process has been to work with the United Way and the YMCA. Our reading camp and our math camps for the early learners have been in place for several years. Camp iRock will be in place, and we plan to continue that. We’ve already identified the students who we need to serve. If anything, we’ll plan to expand that a little bit more in the state, and the state superintendent has been very accommodating in allowing us to plan for that and give us more resources so we can serve more kids. Our biggest challenge is to make sure that we serve those kids who are in kindergarten to third grade and continue to work with them.

In this time of crisis, what has been the most important lesson you’ve learned about leadership?

We call it “replace ourselves.” Instead of wanting all the power, when you give the power away to other people, they step up. We’ve asked two principals to take control of the feeding program, work with food service and bus transportation, and reorganize and repurpose workers in our 12 locations. They’ve just done an outstanding job.

Instead of trying to make all the decisions with our org chart, the concept of “replacing ourselves” allows other people to be leaders. We’ve seen some outstanding leaders step up in this time. We’ve all learned how to use technology better, but the opportunity to replace ourselves with other people who are very gifted in the areas of technology and organization has really been one of the reasons why we’ve been so successful.

How has your participation in the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative (DLI) influenced your leadership and programs you’ve implemented in your school district?

DLI gives you a number of different perspectives. One of the biggest things I took from DLI was just an eagerness to learn from other people. Before this phone call, I was in a one-hour meeting with public education leaders in Finland, who will be offering remote courses to our teachers and employees next year. [Editor’s Note: The Pickens County School District’s Finland initiative was born out of a 2018 educator stakeholders field trip that the Riley Institute organized with Public Education Partners in Greenville and Furman University’s Department of Education.]

We don’t have boundaries. We’re working with Finland because we want to get better and learn from them. They have different perspectives in Finland, but we share the eagerness to get better and learn from each other. Continents, water, they don’t separate us. Technology allows us to work with each other. We may not see each other physically and be together for a couple of years, but through technology — and through the coronavirus — you turned something that’s really bad into something that helps people through collaboration. That’s what I learned from DLI, was that eagerness to learn.