Parents voice frustration as York Suburban quiet on charges against ex-chief

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

York Suburban School District officials continue to try to maintain control over the district's messaging after charges were filed against its former superintendent, but parents in the district are speaking out about what they are calling a "debacle" by the school board.

Former Superintendent Shelly Merkle was charged Tuesday, Nov. 28, with two counts of second-degree misdemeanor criminal mischief, with the York County District Attorney's Office alleging she vandalized two of her former assistant's vehicles on Sept. 11.

York Suburban High School Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. Bill Kalina photo

Spring Garden Township resident Kristen Fraser said the charges against Merkle, 54, came as no surprise to her and other parents in the York Suburban community.

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"York Suburban's a really small community. Everybody knew why she was gone to begin with. We all knew what happened," Fraser said, adding rumors have been circulating since Merkle's resignation from the district on Sept. 25. "So the fact that the school board tried to cover this up to begin with is just completely ridiculous."

Fake news? In a written statement Wednesday, Nov. 22, Acting Superintendent Larry Redding indicated he does not believe reports about Merkle's departure and the district's handling of it are legitimate news stories.

Redding appeared to be referring to a series of reports about the district's leadership vacancies and pending investigations since The York Dispatch's initial Sept. 22 report that Merkle was placed on medical leave.

"It's unfortunate that a majority of our public media outlets focus on the bad things that happen in society. When quizzed about this approach, editors are quick to state that bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers," Redding wrote. "As readers and consumers of 'the news,' we do have a choice — we can dwell on the bad or focus our attention on the positive."

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Fraser, whose youngest daughter was enrolled in the district until a few weeks ago, said she understands the district will try to protect itself from all liabilities stemming from the investigation, but she made it clear that York Suburban taxpayers want to know when district officials engage in "criminal behavior."

"When it involves criminal behavior, then yeah, the public should definitely be involved and know," Fraser said.

'A right to know': Aimee Gochnauer, a Spring Garden Township parent with children in the district, said she didn't really care if Merkle committed crimes on the district's property.

"I care more about how the board handled it — or didn't handle it," Gochnauer said.

The board "didn't really do their job" by keeping information from parents and taxpayers and leaving it up to local newspapers to try to figure out what was going on at the district, Gochnauer said.

The board should have recognized "they had an issue" and been forthcoming about Merkle's departure as it was happening, Gochnauer said.

"I just think that, as parents, we have a right to know," Gochnauer said. "We had a right to know immediately that she was not there. I definitely do not think it was proper that the media had to break the news to the taxpayers."

Kathleen Staley, a member of York Suburban’s first graduating class, said she found out about the charges against Merkle in a local television news report earlier in the day on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

“Well I obviously don’t approve of what she did,” Staley said. “I wouldn’t want her to work at my school.”

She said the alleged acts were odd considering the setting ensured Merkle would be caught.

“There are cameras everywhere (at the district), and she knows they were there,” Staley said.

Merkle’s resignation came 11 days after she went on a medical leave of absence on Sept. 14, a turn of events Staley said caught her off guard.

“All of a sudden, she left, and me and my husband thought, ‘she did something wrong,’” she said.

Reached for comment Tuesday, Nov. 28, newly elected York Suburban school board member James Sanders declined to comment on the board's handling of Merkle's departure and directed all questions to outgoing school board president Lynne Leopold-Sharp.

In an email response after multiple attempts to reach her by phone, Leopold-Sharp said "all your questions implicate a personnel matter. For all the reasons we've stated before, we cannot discuss personnel matters in public."

Leopold-Sharp then directed all further questions to Corinne Mason, the district's finance director and Right to Know officer. Mason has not responded to phone calls seeking comment.

Multiple attempts to reach York Suburban school board members John Posenau, Ellen Freireich, Richard Robinson, Lois Ann Schroeder, Michael Thoman, Joel Sears and former board member Scott Eden were unsuccessful Tuesday, Nov. 28. 

Attempts to reach incoming board members Kenneth Watts and Steven Scalet and outgoing board members Cathy Shaffer and Emily Bates were also unsuccessful.