AASD board president questions increases

Altoona Area School Board President Ryan Beers is demanding answers for salary increases given to at least seven school administrative staff members without board approval.

Beers said he began quietly investigating employees’ salaries two years ago when he noticed an unusually high salary increase for the secretary to the superintendent in 2010 – which Beers did not remember approving.

It was a $10,000 one-time increase that year, which bumped the secretary’s salary to $50,000, Beers said. The raise represented more than a 20 percent increase compared to the 2 percent increase that was contracted.

“Was it done legally, and if so, then how was it done?” Beers asked. “And if it was illegal, what action does the board have in rectifying the situation?”

Superintendent Dennis Murray did not attend Tuesday night’s board meeting because he is scheduled for shoulder surgery stemming from an injury he sustained in December after a fall at school.

“I have not had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Murray about this,” Beers said. “It was a stroke of good or bad luck that he is not here tonight.”

Murray, who is retiring in June after 29 years as Altoona’s superintendent, was caught off-guard by Beers’ assertions, which came as the meeting was winding down.

“I have to look into all of this,” Murray told the Mirror after the meeting.

“It’s hard to respond when you don’t have the facts. This is all supposition. One of individuals I think identified had been given an increase in 2010, but I had a thorough conversation about that with Jim Walstrom, who was board president then. I would like the opportunity to see what this is.”

Murray added, “I’ve never done anything with malice,” and noted an example of how he’s saved the district money, saying, “I’ve just got a $2.1 million return [for the district] in bond financing.”

Walstrom said, “the one increase I can recall,” came about after a promotion in which the salary was found to be lower than several subordinates and the increase was approved in a an executive session without a formal, public vote. He said it was legal because the employee was already in the position.

Beers said he did not recall that discussion and said a pay increase requires an official board vote during a public meeting.

“Unless it is acted on in public it does not exist,” he said.

By comparing board minutes, employee contracts and salary lists dating back to 1991, Beers found six other examples of one-time increases and stipends ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 for administrators holding positions from secretaries to assistant superintendents whose salaries ranged from $30,000 to $107,000.

Another example he shared Tuesday night was a $2,000 increase to bump an employee’s salary to $107,000 for which he found no record of board approval.

Beers did not name the employees because he is not sure whether the increases were illegal.

District Solicitor Dave Andrews said he will review the documents “as soon as possible.”

Andrews said only the school district board of directors can set school employee salaries.

Beers’ report shocked Andrews and board members, most of whom listened silently as he read through his findings. Sharon Bream was the only board member to offer a response.

“This sounds criminal,” she said. “Taxpayers support this school and they are being duped. Someone is going around and doing what they want.”

Murray said his shoulder surgery is scheduled for Thursday, and he’ll likely be out of school for a week.

“I’ll respond appropriately,” after the surgery and when he learns more information about the allegations, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.