Altoona’s disputed raises disclosed

Current Altoona Area school board President Ryan Beers was pushing for clarity on administrative staff salaries years before his questions about raises prompted an investigation by the school district’s solicitor.

Beers unleashed a new round of scrutiny last week when he 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. Combined, the raises total in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office also is conducting an audit of the district.

“If someone does their job above and beyond, then there should be an evaluation to show what the raise should be,” Beers said earlier this week. “But someone shouldn’t unilaterally change people’s salaries, and that is what’s happened.”

He believes the raises might have been given unilaterally, perhaps by longtime district Superintendent Dennis Murray.

The Sunshine Law prohibits raises to be awarded without board approval at a public meeting.

Murray, recovering from shoulder surgery, did not return a phone message this week about the raises Beers questioned, but said last week, “I’ve never done anything with malice,” and a former top assistant, Frank Meloy, defended him and criticized the current board.

The raises Beers questioned are for central office administrators and middle-management staff members who received increases sometimes more than double the contracted annual increases of 3.5 percent and 4 percent from 2007 to 2010. Of the six raises in question, one was for $10,000.

– In March 2010, the board approved confidential secretary Pam Waddell’s salary as per an agreement for administrative staff laid out by the board and Murray – an “Act 93 Agreement,” a 2010 board agenda provided by solicitor Dave Andrews states. However, where the administrative salary agreement called for a 4 percent increase, Waddell received a 23.8 percent increase, or $10,000, Beers said.

– Norm Miller was named assistant superintendent effective July 1, 2010, at a salary of $105,000. Beers’ documents showed Miller’s salary was listed by the district months later at $107,000 – an added $2,000 that Beers said the board did not approve.

– Christine Trybus received a change of assignment in 2010 from confidential secretary/teacher registry in the superintendent’s office to confidential secretary in the assistant superintendent’s office. Trybus’ salary increases of 7 and 9 percent from 2008-10 and a $1,000 stipend rolled into her base pay were not approved by the board, Beers alleges.

– District Business Manager Michelle Krebs received a raise of 8 percent for 2007-08, when the contracted rate was 3.5 percent, and raises of 6 percent for 2008-09 and 2009-10, when the contracted rate was 4 percent each year.

– Prior to her promotion as high school principal, Patty Burlingame, then-assistant high school principal, received raises of 6 percent for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years. Contracted rates were 3.5 percent and 4 percent respectively.

– Lori Mangan, junior high school principal, received salary increases of 8 percent for 2007-08 and 6 percent in 2009-10, when contracted rates were 3.5 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Beers said he also has questions on many other salary increases.

Beers’ allegations prompted the board to direct Andrews to investigate the matter.

Andrews said only the board of school directors has authority to increase or decrease an employee’s salary. Andrews turned over Beers’ documentation to the Mirror.

In 2010, the board approved Beers’ request for a base-pay study. It found that some of Altoona Area’s non-union employees were paid higher than other comparable school districts and some others paid “well below,” Beers said.

“Those raises speak to why we need [a base-pay] policy,” Beers said.

Since the study conducted by HR Consultants Inc. was commissioned – publicly, Andrews said – the board has used its results for internal discussions of the base-pay policy that Andrews said might come to a board vote in time for the July 1 start to the new school fiscal year.

“You have to implement it gradually,” Andrews said. “It’s a significant undertaking, but it makes sense to do.”

But Andrews said the board likely will not move forward with the base-pay policy until the members have input from Murray’s successor, who could be hired by the end of the month. Murray is retiring in June.

Meloy, a former assistant superintendent and a district employee for 42 years, said there must have been a reason for the raises that are under scrutiny.

“You don’t go years and years without a tax increase by giving out money for anything,” he said. “I don’t think anyone was ever overpaid.”

The secretary, Meloy said, was paid extra because there were two people in Murray’s office, then one left.

Murray was always a fair boss, Meloy said. “And knowing how he operated, there was nothing under the table.”

“The board must have selective amnesia,” he added.

Meloy said he attended many executive sessions in which Murray would “talk to the board about different personnel, and he would try to equalize them” with what others were paid in the district.

Andrews said Beers, district human relations director Margaret McMinn and “many board members have mentioned that it’s better to have a structured system for determining pay ranges and gradations based on years of service, skills and position and setting rates that are comparable to competing school districts.

“You want to be competitive with other school districts – Hollidaysburg, Richland, Indiana,” Andrews said.

The “exhaustive” study, Andrews said, compared Altoona to similar-sized communities with the same per capita income.

“There was a lot of comparative data,” he said.

Andrews said he and board members have heard employees with higher salaries express uneasiness that they might not receive raises.

Despite those concerns, Beers said it is incumbent on the board to rectify the salaries that are higher than comparable districts and also those that are lower.

“But how do we implement the policy? We don’t have that answer,” he said.

With available funds, he said, “I would want to allocate resources to people on the low end.”