With a host of issues facing the Columbia Borough School District, perhaps the most glaring is its instability.
In the last five years, the district has gone through four leadership changes.
On Thursday night, the school board made it five.
Tom Strickler, currently the district’s director of operations under a shared services agreement with Eastern Lancaster County School District, was approved as Columbia’s next superintendent by a 6-3 vote.
“I think that between the education leadership and the Elanco technology and business (teams), we have an excellent administrative team to improve the education of our students,” Strickler said.
Despite a few hiccups initially, the agreement is generally regarded as a success at both districts.
Strickler will replace Bob Hollister, who has presided over Elanco and Columbia since the 2016-17 school year. The two districts also share IT and business services.
The move goes into effect Jan. 1, one month before the superintendent agreement between Elanco and Columbia officially ends. Strickler’s salary will go from $96,000 to $102,100, under a three-year contract.
‘A divisive figure’
School Board President Keith Combs and school board members Vickie Anspach, Barry Ford, Rachel Kedney, Cole Knighton and Janet Schwert voted in favor of Strickler’s hiring. School Board Vice President Charles Leader and members Jenna Geesey and Kathleen Hohenadel were opposed.
Those in favor lauded Strickler’s dedication to the school, staff and students, and that his tenure would provide consistency for the district.
Combs, in an email sent Friday, discussed how Strickler could repair what’s been a fractured administration for years prior to the Elanco-Columbia agreement.
“(Strickler) has demonstrated a consistent effort to improve not only the business operations, but also community involvement and initiatives to help our students educationally,” Combs said. “He is one individual within a team of successful educators, business personnel and district staff all working together to make CBSD a better place for our students.”
Opponents of the decision, however, said quite the opposite.
“I see him as a divisive figure in the community,” Hohenadel said in a phone interview on Friday. “I don’t see him as a unifying force in our community, which we desperately need.”
Hohenadel cited Strickler’s nontraditional background as her key concern, which she said is shared among several staff members and residents in the district.
More than 65 residents attended Thursday’s meeting, including a few who spoke out against the vote.
“We are currently in need of an educational leader,” Hohenadel said. “We don’t fit that bill with Tom.”
A 1976 Columbia High School graduate, Strickler served on the school board for 15 years, with 10 as president. Prior to being hired by Elanco as Columbia’s director of operations, he spent more than three decades in business.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Elizabethtown College and a master’s in the same area from University of Phoenix.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education requires noneducators to have four years of experience in business, finance or management, as well as a master’s degree in either of those areas.
In order to fully comply with state requirements, Strickler must acquire a commission qualification letter from the Education Department.
‘I’m not going anywhere’
Strickler said he appreciated the “open” and “honest” debate among the board.
His reception once he officially becomes superintendent isn’t a concern, Strickler said.
“I’m not gonna work every day to prove myself,” he said. “I’m focused on the kids. We’re going to improve things, as the board has requested.”
Strickler said he looks forward to working with the board in forging community and business partnerships with the district, getting more families engaged in their children’s education and improving graduation rates and test scores.
Despite curriculum being his “weakness,” he said, he’s learned a lot in working with Hollister and business manager Keith Ramsey.
“I am committed to Columbia kids. My passion is to see Columbia students do well in education as well as their careers,” Strickler said. “Not only will it benefit them, it will also benefit the community.”
Asked whether he has long-term plans on staying with the district, he said: “I’m not going anywhere.”