AASD superintendent hires legal counsel

Altoona Area Superintendent Dennis Murray has retained an attorney in response to inquiries that school board President Ryan Beers has made regarding administrative staff salary increases that he suspects might have been given without board approval.

Murray said Monday that he wants “vindication – or at least to get my story out.”

Murray has been recovering from shoulder surgery, but said, “I have to begin to make a response at some point.”

The longtime superintendent is being represented by Pittsburgh attorney Efrem Grail of Reed Smith LLP. Through a letter including a demand of indemnity sent to district solicitor Dave Andrews, Grail has demanded that the district pay for Murray’s legal fees.

The board would be responsible for Murray’s legal fees, Andrews said, only if written charges were filed against Murray and those charges are found to be without merit.

“It is not our position that the district is liable for attorney fees at this point in time for his consultation,” Andrews said.

Murray’s contract states that the board must provide Murray with written charges if it seeks to fire him for a violation of board directives or school code.

“If found innocent of charges made, the district shall assume responsibility for payment of costs incurred by him in his defense,” the contract states.

Beers would not comment on whether the board is considering filing charges. He said he is awaiting the results of Andrews’ non-criminal investigation of salary increases to administrative employees that totaled tens of thousands of dollars. Beers said, “We will decide the ramifications after that.”

During the school board’s Jan. 22 meeting, Beers told fellow board members that he was unable to find board approval for some raises dating back to 2007 that exceeded contracted amounts for several administrative staff members. Under the Sunshine Law, all raises must be approved at public board meetings.

As directed by the school board, Andrews began an investigation of district employee raises based on Beers’ inquiries.

Andrews declined to say anything about the investigation, “particularly because we have not spoken with Dr. Murray,” he said.

Murray is recovering from shoulder surgery and has not been at work since Jan. 24.

Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Ray has been appointed by the board to serve as acting superintendent in Murray’s absence.

“We have to give opportunity for Dr. Murray to give his side of the story,” Andrews said. “We have to wait for when his counsel would say he’s available, medically speaking.”

Grail declined to comment about any aspect of his representation.

Beers said he has not been updated by Andrews.

“I’m kind of waiting to hear from Andrews on this for his results,” Beers said.

Beers has not reached out to Murray, and Murray has not attempted to contact Beers, he said.

“I’ve not been in any contact with him,” Beers said. “I’ve been advised [by Andrews] not to reach out because of the investigation.”

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