Columbia Borough school board meeting

The Columbia Borough school board meets virtually Thursday, May 21, 2020. 

It appears Tom Strickler’s days as Columbia Borough School District superintendent are numbered.

The Columbia Borough school board on Thursday voted to consider candidates to replace Strickler when his contract expires Dec. 31, rather than extend it for three to five years. The measure passed during a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom by a 7-2 vote, with board members Kate Keyser and Cole Knighton opposing.

“No, and shame on all of you who voted yes,” Knighton said during his vote, immediately after which he left the meeting.

The move followed dozens of comments submitted by Columbia residents, including Mayor Leo Lutz, lauding Strickler for his steady leadership and student-centered approach since he became superintendent in 2018.

“I have been associated with the school district in a professional capacity for over 25 years and have never seen the amount of work, dedication and innovative thinking for both students and residents done by a superintendent other than Tom Strickler,” Lutz said.

Many questioned the board’s timing, as a leadership transition — its sixth in eight years — would seem like the last thing it would want to consider during a pandemic.

“With these unprecedented times, we need to be bonding together, not splintering apart,” Chris Smiley, of Columbia, said. “The optics of the timing seems very off.”

According to state law, the board had to consider Strickler’s status on or before June 30, or 150 days before his contract expired.

Still, many weren’t pleased with the board’s decision to consider a replacement for Strickler, including board member Keyser, who called the move “unwise and foolish.”

Strickler, the only Lancaster County superintendent with a noneducation background, isn’t without his critics. His unconventional rise at Columbia —from a businessman to a board member, then to the director of operations under a shared leadership agreement between Eastern Lancaster County and Columbia Borough school districts, then to superintendent — rubbed some the wrong way.

Strickler was approved by a 6-3 vote in November 2017 to replace Bob Hollister, who had run both Elanco and Columbia for a year and a half. Two of those votes came from current board members — President Charles Leader and Vice President Kathleen Hohenadel.

When Strickler, whose current salary is $107,000, was hired, Hohenadel questioned the superintendent’s leadership, calling him a “divisive figure.”

Neither Leader nor Hohenadel explained their vote during the meeting. Reached by phone following the meeting, Leader declined to comment on his decision, citing personnel concerns. Hohenadel did not return a phone call.

Other board members who voted against Strickler said they were doing their due diligence as elected officials by considering other options.

After the vote, Strickler, in a prepared statement, listed numerous accomplishments the district has achieved under his leadership, such as enhancing its online and social media presence, creating and strengthening relationships with community organizations, shoring up its finances, expanding college and career readiness programs, and, most recently, creating a nationally recognized online learning page during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Since coming to the district, our team has provided the most consistent leadership in Columbia since 2012,” he said. “We have made it our mission that Columbia students will not be denied opportunities and increased rigor.”

Strickler said the decision couldn’t have been performance-based, because his most recent evaluation was satisfactory.

At the end of his remarks, he floated the idea of the board buying out his contract instead of leaving him a “lame duck” for seven months, which some board members found disappointing.

Strickler did not return a phone call after the meeting.

If the board doesn’t buy out his contract, Strickler will remain superintendent until at least Dec. 31. He may apply for the position he’s held since January 2018.