Murray’s attorney: Raises legal

The raises given to some Altoona Area School District administrative staff members were adopted by the school board as part of its yearly budget process and complied with district policies, according to a statement from a law firm representing longtime Superintendent Dennis Murray.

The statement by the Pittsburgh office of Reed Smith LLP also criticizes board President Ryan Beers, whose questions in January about raises initiated an investigation now being handled by a Philadelphia law firm.

“Had Mr. Beers done the right and courteous thing at the outset – just ask Dr. Murray about the moderate salary increases – rather than make his claims in a public spectacle, the School District’s lawyers in Altoona and now Philadelphia likely would not have become involved in expensive investigatory proceedings,” the statement by Reed Smith said.

At a January meeting, Beers said he could not find in the minutes where the board approved raises between 2007 and 2010 given to several administrative employees. Murray was absent from the meeting because he was preparing to undergo shoulder surgery after a December fall on school property.

Attorney Efrem Grail of Reed Smith announced in February that he had been retained by Murray.

Murray had been on medical leave from the surgery until Tuesday evening when the Altoona school board placed Murray on paid leave and hired Levin Legal Group to take over an investigation into the raises that initially had conducted by district solicitor David P. Andrews. Andrews had advised the board to hire outside counsel because he might be called as a witness about the matter.

“The AASD Board’s political decision to place Dr. Murray on paid administrative leave does not change the issue here. The only question is whether salary increases – which were legitimately earned and paid to those who earned them, were approved by the Board consistent with its decades-long practices, and were adopted by the Board in its yearly administrative salary budget process – complied with the strict letter of the School District’s policies. Sensitive personnel issues are appropriately discussed in executive session, and Dr. Murray’s prudent action in making recommendations to and receiving approval from the Board in executive session on instances of unfair pay disparities likely saved the School District from numerous costly lawsuits based on gender and age discrimination. Dr. Murray did nothing wrong, gained no benefit from any of these increases, and is not responsible for what does or does not appear in the Board Minutes – which expressly approved the largest salary increase at issue in this inquiry,” the Reed Smith statement said.

State law allows governmental bodies to go into executive session to discuss certain matters but requires official votes be done in a public meeting.

Last August, Murray announced he would retire on June 30 after 29 years as superintendent.

The Reed Smith statement reads: “Dr. Murray was forced to retain counsel to defend against this attempt at character assassination. As a result of Mr. Beers’ decision, the taxpayers could be on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal fees to numerous lawyers.”

Beers refutes Reed Smith’s statement that he caused the district to become entangled in legal teams.

“Quite frankly, you don’t need attorneys to settle this. If he [Murray] has documentation to clear it up, I encourage him to bring that forward,” Beers said.

Through a written demand of indemnity, Reed Smith is demanding the district to pay Murray’s legal fees. However, the firm has not communicated the hourly rate it is charging.

Andrews’ rate as solicitor is $125 per hour. In the wake of his stepping away from the investigation because of positions taken by Reed Smith, Andrews recommended the board hire an additional law firm – Levin Legal Group, whose rate is $170 to $190 per hour.

Calls to Grail and a Reed Smith spokesperson regarding the firm’s hourly charge were not returned.