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EDITORIAL: An open question in York Suburban

York Dispatch

York Suburban officials continue to stonewall the public about the bizarre case of former Superintendent Shelly Merkle and how they handled it last fall.

Merkle recently broke her silence, raising more questions in the process — questions school board members and administrators refuse to answer.

It’s the continuation of a pattern that began within days of Sept. 11, 2017.

That was the date Suburban’s then-top administrator was recorded on video vandalizing a vehicle belonging to the assistant superintendent on district property after a school board meeting. 

Michele Merkle exits the York County Judicial Center following an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Hearing in York City, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Merkle eventually was charged with two misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief. Late last month she was accepted into Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, a York County diversionary program for first-time nonviolent offenders that, if successfully completed, will allow her to avoid conviction.

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The Sept. 11 school board meeting was Merkle’s final one with Suburban, where she worked for 27 years.

On Sept. 14, she began what district officials later described as a medical leave of absence, although that information was not revealed until more than a week later in response to questions from The York Dispatch.

Corinne Mason, the district’s director of finance, confirmed Merkle’s absence on Friday, Sept. 22, and we broke the news that day.

On Monday, Sept. 25, the board unanimously accepted Merkle’s resignation that night at its regularly scheduled meeting — two full weeks after the vandalism.

From the beginning, school board members and district administrators refused to answer questions about the incident and their handling of it.

Only through official Right to Know Law requests was The York Dispatch able to confirm in November that there was an ongoing criminal investigation involving Merkle — and there was surveillance video related to it.

Those records requests also revealed emails between York Suburban School District officials that appear to show a coordinated effort to clamp down on information about Merkle.

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On Sept. 14, Mason sent an email to then-school board President Lynne Leopold-Sharp and other board members, telling them not to say anything about the matter to other district staffers.

"There has been the question raised (of) what goes out to the staff," Mason wrote. "NOTHING goes out to the staff at this time. If you are asked anything regarding Dr. Merkle, 'Dr. Merkle is out on medical leave.'"

Now we have more information — from Merkle herself — that raises more questions about the former superintendent’s exit.

In a long email she sent to former colleagues and others on Feb. 28, one day after she was accepted into the ARD program, Merkle claims she confessed to her victim on Sept. 12 — the day after she was recorded committing the deed — and submitted her resignation to the board on Sept. 13.

The board did not accept it at the time, Merkle wrote, and chose instead to place her on medical leave

Think about that: Although she now claims health issues — and told us she thinks, in hindsight, the board’s decision was “rather wise” — Merkle says she tried to quit, and the board decided to keep her on the public payroll.

"I do wish that the board had accepted my resignation immediately," Merkle wrote in her Feb. 28 email. "It was my plan to make a public statement which I believe would have short-circuited the speculation, rumors and misinformation."

Yes, that probably would have been the way to go.

That is, if board members didn’t say “You’re fired” as soon as their top administrator admitted to a crime — committed on district property, after a school board meeting, and caught on video by the district’s own surveillance system.

But is this all true? Maybe Merkle is remembering this differently.

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If so, all school board members and administrators would have to do is dispute it and let district taxpayers and parents make up their own minds.

But they’re refusing to do even that.

Mason, who continues to act as the district’s spokeswoman, issued a statement in response to our questions, saying, “Because the District has already issued a variety of press releases addressing Dr. Merkle's resignation and surrounding events, which cover the areas you question in your email, it sees no need to further respond ..."

For the record, the district has never addressed whether the board refused to immediately accept Merkle’s resignation.

Asked that specific question a second time last week, Mason answered: "The response submitted was the response to your questions."

Members who were on the board at the time of the vandalism either refused to comment or did not return messages seeking comment.

It shouldn’t be this difficult for Suburban representatives.

Merkle also claimed in her email that she was “vindicated” by the York County District Attorney’s Office in earlier vandalism directed at the former assistant superintendent — and the DA’s spokesman quickly labeled that “patently false."

“Obviously, we cannot proceed forward ethically on any investigation that we do not believe we could prove ... beyond a reasonable doubt," spokesman Kyle King said.

Merkle also wrote that if "there was substance to the claims of any inappropriate or unprofessional behavior prior to September 11, they would have been addressed by the YS School Board and it would be part of the public record."

Perhaps — if school board members had been adequately exercising their oversight responsibilities.            

But that remains an open question.