For Tom Strickler, serving as Columbia Borough School District’s lame duck superintendent just wouldn’t work.
The school board earlier this month hired Ashley Mercado, principal of Wickersham Elementary School in Lancaster, to replace Strickler. Instead of sticking it out until the end of the year when his contract expired, Strickler went on paid administrative leave.
It was an unconventional exit for a man whose unconventional rise — from corporate executive to school board president to superintendent — perturbed some, including a number of current Columbia Borough school board members, who wanted a leader with a stronger education background.
Now they have one in Mercado waiting in the wings.
The 60-year-old Strickler, meanwhile, is looking for a new start.
“The board decided what direction they wanted to go, and my best option was to let them go that way and not be in their way,” said Strickler, who will continue to be paid his annual salary of $107,000 — $13,000 less than what Mercado will make — and benefits until his contract expires.
According to the separation agreement between Strickler and the board, which LNP | LancasterOnline obtained through a Right-to-Know request, Strickler also will receive $1,638 in retroactive pay for a salary increase he was due in July. Strickler said his annual salary increase came late last year, too
The district will pay Strickler $7,772 for 18.5 unused vacation and personal days, the agreement states.
School board President Charles Leader and Vice President Kathleen Hohenadel said in a joint statement that the board “worked to be fair to all stakeholders” in processing Strickler’s separation. The money Strickler will receive while on leave will come out of the district’s $27 million budget for the year, which did not call for a property tax increase and has “not been overspent,” according to Leader and Hohenadel.
Strickler was hired in November 2017 following a 6-3 vote of the board. Leader and Hohenadel were two of the three dissenters. Jenna Geesey, who is no longer on the board, also voted against Strickler.
Hohenadel at the time called Strickler “a divisive figure” because of his business background.
None of the six board members who voted in support of Strickler is currently on the board. The most recent departure was Cole Knighton, one of Strickler’s more vocal supporters. He resigned after the board opted not to renew Strickler’s contract and instead chose to search for a new superintendent.
Kate Keyser, who also voted against the search, appeared to have a change of heart once the board set its sights on Mercado. She voted to hire Mercado and asked the community to welcome her “with open arms.”
Keyser did not respond to a request for comment.
Until Mercado starts Jan. 2, 2020, Gregory McGough, the district’s former director of curriculum, is filling in as interim superintendent. The district will pay McGough a $5,000 stipend as interim superintendent on top of his $102,192 annual salary.
McGough and seven other Columbia administrators penned a letter to the board in June praising Strickler’s “student-centered leadership,” the community partnerships he’s helped form and his efforts to bring the district “back from the brink of bankruptcy.”
That work was just beginning, Strickler said.
“Had we had more time,” he said, “there would have been a dramatic shift in student opportunities, as well as their futures, based on three years of positive improvement.”
The tiny Columbia Borough School District, which has about 1,300 students, 66% of whom are from economically disadvantaged households, has consistently performed near the bottom among other Lancaster County school districts in standardized test scores. Under Strickler, that hasn’t changed. However, educational programs and opportunities have expanded, his supporters have said.
As for what’s next for Strickler, he’s selling his house in Columbia and looking for other superintendent jobs in and around Pennsylvania.
“My wife and I both are very dedicated to students in Columbia, and I’ve given everything that I could, and it’s just time to leave,” he said.
Strickler was born and raised in Columbia, graduated from Columbia High School in 1976 and has lived in the area for most of his life. His stepfather, Earl Strickler, helped start Columbia’s National Watch & Clock Museum.
Tom Strickler eventually served on the school board for 15 years, including 10 as president. At that time, he had filled various corporate roles at several central Pennsylvania businesses. His last major job outside of education was working as the director of operations for the state Department of Human Services under then-Gov. Tom Corbett.
He was later hired as Columbia’s director of operations under a shared leadership agreement with Eastern Lancaster County School District, before becoming superintendent in January 2018.
“I had no clue in 1999 when somebody called and said, ‘Would you run for school board?,’ it would take this trajectory, but it’s been fun,” he said.