Otto welcomed amid AAHS probe

With resounding support for Tom Otto, the Altoona Area school board officially approved a four-year contract for the incoming superintendent Tuesday night.

Otto received applause from a full audience at the meeting, and board members unanimously approved him as the superintendent from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2017.

“Absolutely,” was board President Ryan Beers’ vote.

Otto could possibly start as early as June 15 at a per diem rate.

Incumbent Superintendent Dennis Murray is “still the superintendent of record,” said board member Skip Dry.

Murray is recovering from Jan. 24 shoulder surgery and also faces continued scrutiny from the Auditor General and District Solicitor Dave Andrews regarding salary increases for at least six administrative staff members that Murray may have authorized dating back to 2007.

Murray, 72, is retiring June 30, having served as superintendent for 29 years.

The Auditor General’s office has shared no information with the district regarding the status of the investigation, district business manager Michelle Krebs said.

The investigation of the salary increases was prompted by a “citizen’s inquiry,” she said Tuesday.

“We are not at liberty to know who that citizen is,” she said.

The raises were questioned by board President Ryan Beers during the school board’s Jan. 22 meeting. Beers said he spent several months researching public documents related to the raises.

He first consulted the Department of the Auditor General about six months ago, he said, for advice on how to proceed with his investigation. In November, the Auditor Generals office advised him to continue his work and notified him that the office would also be launching an investigation. Beers’ research of the raises and inquiries prompted the board to direct Andrews to conduct an investigation. Under the Sunshine Law, all raises must be approved at public board meetings.

Andrews’ investigation is complete, aside from interviewing Murray. Andrews said he is waiting for Murray’s attorney to contact him when Murray is healthy enough to be interviewed.

Murray’s Pittsburgh-based attorney, Efrem Grail, said Murray could possibly be interviewed next week.

“He is still in a sling,” Grail said. “He can’t drive. Hopefully he gets to a point where he can concentrate on answering Mr. Andrews’ questions next week, hopefully. It may be the week after.”

Grail has spoken with Murray on the phone and is confident of his client’s case.

“We have the truth,” he said.

The attorney was critical of Beers’ timing.

“We think it is really unfortunate this issue came up the one day Ryan Beers knew Denny wasn’t there,” he said.

District spokesperson Paula Foreman said she expects Murray to return to work sometime before the end of the school year. A retirement dinner in his honor is planned next month.

Otto said the investigation is not a distraction for him.

He has work to finish at Clearfield Area School District, where he has served as superintendent since 2011.

Clearfield Area is in the middle of a $36 million high school renovation project. Last month the Clearfield Area school board voted to close two elementary schools, a middle school and build an $11 million addition to the district’s remaining elementary school.

“I have a lot of things going on right now,” Otto said.

Transitioning to Altoona Area, where the school board may also close one elementary school (Wright Elementary) and repurpose another (Washington-Jefferson) as a preschool for next year will not be a shock to him, he said.

“These are issues facing all districts,” he said. “Our job is to provide thorough education for students and balancing needs of taxpayers as well.”

Otto’s base salary at Clearfield Area was $122,189 according to the district. His starting salary at Altoona Area will be $141,000. The contract will include an automatic annual salary increase of 2.5 percent and an annual bonus of up to 1.5 percent depending on a board performance evaluation.

Murray’s base salary for the last year of his career is $182,607, not including benefits.

Until Murray returns to work, Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Ray continues in her temporary capacity of substitute superintendent.

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