Solicitor may be witness

If raises were improperly given to Altoona Area School District administrative staff, the decisions were not made during closed-door board sessions he attended, solicitor Dave Andrews said.

Since January, Andrews has been investigating school board President Ryan Beers’ questions about whether some administrative staff received raises above the contracted amounts without board approval.

Andrews has attended many executive sessions when personnel matters were discussed. He recently said that no wrongdoing occurred during those executive sessions and that he takes care to ensure the board abides by the Sunshine Laws.

On Monday, the school board voted 6-3 to hire Levin Legal Group of Philadelphia to take over the investigation based on Andrews’ advice. Andrews now believes he might be called as a witness at a later date, possibly for what occurred during executive sessions.

“All I can say is information has been presented by Superintendent Dennis Murray’s attorneys that was unexpected and made it look like I could be called as a witness,” Andrews said.

A March 21 interview with Murray “covered a variety of issues,” Andrews said. He said “a combination of matters” led to his decision not to continue as the board’s investigator.

Murray’s counsel did not ask Andrews to recuse himself.

Andrews will forward the findings of his investigation to the Levin law firm.

Andrews could not say if the board or Murray would call him to testify, but based on the information he received from Murray’s attorneys, he said he expects he would be testifying on behalf of the board.

“I would have liked to have known what their positions were earlier,” he said, but Murray and his counsel postponed their interview with Andrews so that Murray could heal from shoulder surgery. On Monday, the board placed Murray on paid leave.

Prior to obtaining legal representation for himself, Murray said in response to inquiries made by Beers that compensation for one employee had been discussed with the board.

Former board President Jim Walstrom said that a $2,000 increase was discussed in executive session for an employee to bring his salary equal to those of his subordinates and that was to be included on the next public meeting agenda. If it was not on the agenda, it was an oversight.

Board minutes for a public meeting on April 19, 2010, state the board approved hiring Miller as assistant superintendent for a four-year term at a salary of $105,000.

But documents that Beers provided to Andrews state that Assistant Superintendent Norm Miller’s salary for the 2010-11 school year was $107,000, or $2,000 more than the board had approved.

In researching public documents, Beers specifically inquired about Miller’s raise and salary increases for five others that date back to 2007.

Beers said he did not expect Andrews to recuse himself or for the board to have to hire an additional law firm to conclude the investigation.

“I would have hoped it would be done a lot quicker,” Beers said.

Andrews said his investigation included interviews, including the one with Murray to gain information about protocols and procedures in place at the district.

“When one side gives you information, you have to investigate the other side, too,” Andrews said.

Andrews is running for Blair County judge in the May 21 primary. Andrews said his campaign has had no bearing on how he has conducted his investigation.

“Absolutely none,” he said. “My role here is to represent the Altoona Area School District. I have a very active law practice, and my obligation is first and foremost to all of my clients.”