President has raised concerns throughout his tenure on board

Altoona Area school board President Ryan Beers is not opting for a second term in 2014.

“It was a family decision,” he said.

If he would serve on the board for another four years, then his son would be 6 years old by the time that term would end.

Currently, the pharmaceutical salesman often arrives home late from school board meetings that follow his work day, meaning he sees his wife, Shelly, in passing and his son is often already asleep.

The Altoona Area board has been spending more than 20 hours per week in meetings. He spent his 29th birthday on Feb. 6 interviewing superintendent candidates.

There have also been early mornings, weekends and late nights spent at the dinner table scouring lists of administrative salaries obtained from the district, then comparing increases shown on those lists with rates listed in the employees’ contract. For each salary showing an increase above that rate, he pored over board meeting minutes to ensure the board did not approve a promotion or did not authorize some kind of spending of funds and organized the information in a spread sheet.

“I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but there were clearly discrepancies in what I found. That’s why I asked [school district] attorney [Dave] Andrews to look at this further and give the board a ruling on where to go,” he said.

In January, Beers made his research public at a school board meeting, inquiring about at least six administrative salary increases amounting to tens of thousands of dollars that seemed to have been given through the superintendent’s office.

When the school board meets, it doesn’t discuss the subsequent investigations launched by Andrews and the Auditor General’s Office, board member Skip Dry said.

“We talk about what we need to do about providing education to the kids, upkeep of the buildings. We don’t talk about the investigations,” he said.

Superintendent Dennis Murray hired an attorney after Beers questioned the increases.

“The solicitor has asked to interview him. There are things being said about his reputation. He may have claims of his own,” Murray’s attorney Efrem Grail of Pittsburgh said Friday explaining why Murray hired an attorney.

He declined to say whether Murray had claims and what kind of claims they may be.

“I’m not going to talk about those,” he said.

Grail added that he believes Murray is owed an apology.

Board member Dick Lockard, who has worked with Murray for 28 years on the board, said the board is neutral on the issue.

“We can’t take sides,” he said. “I have to get results back from the auditor general and the solicitor. It is the board’s responsibility to listen to them and take direction after that.”

Beers’ questioning of salary increases was not the first time he stood alone in opposition to Murray. He has made waves on the board since he was elected in 2009.

In 2010, he not only cast the only vote opposing a 2.88-mill tax increase for the 2010-11 school year, he provided a page of reasons to defend his vote.

“That’s where we got into a bit of an issue. At the time it was shocking because that wasn’t normal practice,” he said. “I think on a board and locally and as a society, we have to get away from trying to silence people we don’t agree with.

“The most important speech is coming from those who you don’t agree with. That’s the one you have to defend,” he said.

The increase was approved, raising the average property tax bill by $37.50. Murray had said the increase was needed to help cover rising employer contribution rates to the state pension system controlled by the state.

“It was like putting a Band-Aid on cancer,” Beers said. “My job was to say what I believe is right and defend why I believed it. It just so happened that the person I disagreed with was Dr. Murray.”

He said his challenge to the tax increase proposed during his first year on the board is similar to his challenge of administrative salary increases.

“It wasn’t because of him that I’m looking into these things. It just happened that I am doing this and he just happened to be on the other side of the table,” Beers said.

The 2002 Altoona Area High School graduate is among the minority age-wise when it comes to school board makeup: Less than 1 percent of approximately 4,500 school board directors statewide were under the age of 25 in 2010, a Pennsylvania School Boards Association survey states.

“I thought I could be an impartial voice to call balls and strikes as I see them,” he said of his motivation to campaign for the board.

He was a volunteer football coach for the district prior to his campaign for the board.

“There was an issue with the weight room. I learned how hard it is to get your voice across,” he said.

He wrestled and played football for Altoona Area, then earned a bachelor’s degree of communication and rhetoric from the University of Richmond in Virginia, which he attended on an athletic scholarship.

“The district has done wonderful things. I have a lot of pride in the way things have been done. I was a product of it,” he said. “And there are things I’ve tried to change.

“If there is a problem I come across, I think I have an obligation not only to the people who elected me to watch over the district but also to do what is morally and ethically right,” he added.

He said his time on the board has “taken away from family time.” Looking back on the time he’s spent on board issues, he said his wife deserves a lot of thanks.

He also said he doesn’t want to have to serve on the board for 40 years.

“Hopefully someone smarter than me and with more time than me sees what I’ve done, agrees with it and wants to pick up the mantle,” he said.

“I believe in what the district can offer. People always say, ‘I want to get out of Altoona.’ My thought is, if all the good people leave, what’s left?”

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