Tom Strickler

Tom Strickler is shown in this 2014 file photo.

Columbia Borough School District has made its sixth change to superintendent in seven years.

The school board on Thursday night hired Ashley Mercado, the principal of Lancaster’s Wickersham Elementary School, as Columbia’s new superintendent. Mercado’s first day will be Jan. 2, 2021, after students return from winter break.

In an abrupt response to the hire, current Superintendent Tom Strickler will go on paid administrative leave until his contract expires Dec. 31.

The board unanimously approved Mercado’s appointment and Strickler’s leave, and then it named Gregory McGough, the district’s director of curriculum, as interim superintendent until Mercado takes over.

School board Vice President Kathleen Hohenadel declined to answer questions about Strickler’s leave prior to the meeting. Instead, school board President Charles Leader sent a prepared statement, which he also read aloud during the meeting. The board and Strickler “mutually agreed” to the leave, according to the statement.

“Mr. Strickler is deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to serve as District Superintendent and offers his thanks and best wishes to the staff of the School District and the Columbia Borough school community,” the statement reads.

Strickler did not return a phone call Thursday.

In May, the board voted to consider Strickler’s replacement instead of renewing his contract, despite a wave of pushback from the community, including Columbia Mayor Leo Lutz and Lancaster Chamber President Tom Baldrige. The board in June tapped Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 to conduct the search at no cost.

School board member Cole Knighton, one of Strickler’s most vocal supporters, has since resigned his seat. Kate Keyser was the only other school board member to vote in support of keeping Strickler in May and June.

Prior to voting to approve the superintendent hire, Keyser thanked the community for “standing up for what you believe to be right” and asked Strickler’s supporters to welcome Mercado “with open arms.”

“I want you all to know that I’m extremely confident in Ms. Ashley Mercado as the next superintendent,” she said. “I believe she will be an excellent addition to Columbia Borough School District, and I plan to support her 100%.”

Mercado has been the principal at Wickersham since 2014. She was an assistant principal from 2012 to 2014 and a Spanish teacher from 2006 to 2012 with the city’s schools.

She will finalize a doctorate in education and administration from Immaculata University next spring. She has a master’s degree in education administration from the University of Scranton and a bachelor’s degree in Spanish education from the University of Delaware.

Mercado will earn an annual base salary of $120,000. Strickler is making $107,000 a year.

Addressing the board Thursday night, Mercado said she was “truly honored and excited” to be named superintendent, and she is “very much looking forward to working collaboratively” to serve the community.

Mercado represents the sixth superintendent change in Columbia since 2013, when Kenneth Klawitter was hired as interim superintendent to replace Barry Clippinger, who led the district from 2006 to 2012.

No other Columbia superintendent has lasted more than two years since then.