Crisis management expert: York Suburban needs transparency
The founder of a major Harrisburg-based communications agency expressed disappointment with the way York Suburban School District leadership has handled the situation with its former superintendent.
Shelly Merkle was charged Tuesday, Nov. 28, with two counts of second-degree misdemeanor criminal mischief, with the York County Detective Bureau alleging she vandalized two of her former assistant's vehicles on Sept. 11.
School board members and administrators have repeatedly declined to comment, and Merkle's medical leave of absence beginning Sept. 14 — which preceded her resignation — wasn't revealed to the public until more than a week later.
David La Torre, of La Torre Communications, said the most important lesson he preaches to his clients when dealing with an internal crisis is to always err on the side of transparency.
La Torre, who worked as a York Dispatch reporter in the late 1990s, has some notable experience in crisis management, as he and his agency were brought in by Penn State University months after child molestation charges were filed against former football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Public disclosure: Informed about recent news reports surrounding York Suburban, La Torre said Wednesday, Nov. 29, that the public shouldn't have to find out details about school leadership drama through police filings, and the district's relationship with parents and taxpayers could take years to repair.
After the charges were filed, numerous parents of Suburban students expressed frustration with how the school board has dealt with Merkle's departure.
"York Suburban's a really small community," Spring Garden Township resident Kristen Fraser said. "Everybody knew why she was gone to begin with ... So the fact that the school board tried to cover this up to begin with is just completely ridiculous."
La Torre said that companies, or school districts in this case, too often instinctively withdraw from public disclosure during a crisis when they really should be acknowledging the severity of the situation and deciding how to communicate its message publicly.
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 only response from any school board member — incoming or outgoing — received by The York Dispatch since the charges were filed Tuesday came from outgoing board President Lynne Leopold-Sharp, who said in an email that "all your questions implicate a personnel matter. For all the reasons we've stated before, we cannot discuss personnel matters in public."
She and others have otherwise referred questions to Corinne Mason, the district's finance director and Right-to-Know officer, or not responded at all.
Mason wrote in an email response that the entire district is committed to transparency, but they also must "recognize and respect laws and regulations that provide for confidentiality as to various personnel matters and active investigations."
"We certainly understand that the public would like to have more information, but we are bound by restrictions and must responsibility manage information during an active investigation," she wrote.
She added that the district is fully cooperating with the District Attorney's Office and provided letters sent to parents from Leopold-Sharp on Nov. 21 and Nov. 28.
"It is important to the Board and our entire District leadership team that we work to improve communications with you and our community," the Nov. 21 letter states. "We want to ensure that you hear the latest updates directly from us and have access to our team for additional information."
Future plan: La Torre said it's very important for the school board to collectively issue a statement explaining why they've taken the actions they have and explain to parents and taxpayers how a similar situation would be handled in the future.
He said that too often in a crisis situation, people listen only to their lawyers, whose job is to protect clients' reputations in the short term, and not communications experts, whose job is to protect clients' reputations for the long term.
"They may not be able to discuss personnel issues, but they certainly can discuss why they took the actions that they did," La Torre said.
La Torre expressed particular disappointment when learning of an email sent by Mason to school board members when Merkle began her medical leave, advising them not to say anything to other district employees.
"There has been the question raised (of) what goes out to the staff," Mason wrote in the email, obtained via Right-to-Know request. "NOTHING goes out to the staff at this time. If you are asked anything regarding Dr. Merkle, 'Dr. Merkle is out on medical leave.'"
La Torre advised that leadership might consider creating a book, or established plan, for how to deal with a crisis in the future, so that they can take immediate action.
Such a plan should be grounded in transparency and effectively communicating the issue to the public, he said.
"None of that was done in this case," he added.
— Note: This story has been updated to include response from Corinne Mason that was received after initial publication.
— Reach David Weissman at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.