Invites not lost in mail

A majority of school board members who sit across the meeting table from Altoona Area Superintendent Dennis Murray won’t be around the table with him Saturday night for his retirement dinner because they apparently weren’t invited.

Skip Dry, Dick Lockard, President Ryan Beers and Cheryl Rupp said they have not received invitations for the event. Some members who were contacted indicated Sharon Bream and Elizabeth Chapman also did not receive an invitation.

However, Ron Johnston and Timothy Lucas said they did receive invitations for the event at The Casino at Lakemont Park about three to four weeks ago. Board members contacted believe board Vice President Maryann Joyce Bistline also was invited.

Those attending the dinner will pay $40 for a ticket. District spokeswoman Paula Foreman said the dinner is completely funded by ticket sales, and no taxpayer money will be used.

Murray, superintendent for 29 years, is retiring at the end of the school year. He has not returned to work since undergoing shoulder surgery Jan. 24 necessitated by a fall in a school hallway, the district reported.

Since late January, Murray has been the focus of questions surrounding raises given to six administrative staff members that might not have been voted on by the board.

Beers, the board president, questioned the raises in January and said he could not find minutes showing board approval.

School directors told solicitor David Andrews to investigate the matter.

Andrews, who is scheduled to interview Murray for his investigation next week, initially declined to say whether he was attending the dinner, but he later called the Mirror to say he received an invitation and turned it down.

“I take what I do very seriously. As an attorney, I’m always careful about any social event that reflects on the job I’m doing. Because of the current situation and investigation, it would not be proper for me to go to this event,” he said.

The interview with Murray will cap Andrews’ investigation of the salary increases that date back to 2007 and were apparently higher than amounts detailed in board-approved contracts.

“I don’t want to give any appearance that the investigation results, however they turn out, would have been influenced by any social relationship,” Andrews said. “I work with a lot of superintendents in a lot of districts. You get to know them well in many situations, but they understand my legal obligation and loyalty is to the board of school directors.”

Murray has secured legal counsel of Pittsburgh-based attorney Efrem Grail, who said the investigation results will show Murray is owed an apology.

The state Auditor General’s Office also is doing an audit of the district.

Lucas has attended dinners in the past and said they are usually coordinated by the community relations person and are attended by a mix of teachers, board members, administrators and family members.

“I haven’t spoken to him [Murray] since before Christmas,” said Lockard, who does not know the reason he wasn’t invited.

Cheryl Rupp said she is not bothered by not receiving an invitation.

“It’s his retirement dinner, and he is free to invite whoever he wants,” she said.

Johnston was grateful for his invitation but declined.

“I was surprised that not all of the board members got invitations,” he said.

“We all go or none of us go,” Johnston said.

Retired assistant superintendent Frank Meloy is among the guests attending.

“I very much look forward to sending him off on a positive note. He is deserving of all the praise we can give him,” he said.

“Altoona Area has never had a superintendent of his caliber nor will they ever have one like him again. For what he’s done in curriculum – leading the district to numerous years ranked as an outperforming school district when a lot of students come from poor homes. The physical plan is next to none in the state. That all can be attributed to Dr. Murray’s vision. And his ability to handle fiscal matters,” he said, noting the district has gone more than two decades with few tax increases.