Striving for unity

Incoming Altoona Area School District Superintendent Tom Otto has the full support of the school board, something Superintendent Dennis Murray has not had since the start of 2012.

“With the new superintendent, we can all get behind him and go in the same direction, in a way that benefits students and teachers,” board member Skip Dry said.

“I can’t wait for him to come down from Clearfield. It’s going to be something that all board members want,” he said.

In 2011, school board candidates Sharon Bream and Cheryl Rupp campaigned on a promise of not being “yes men” for the administration.

“They’ve been out to get [Murray] from day one,” former board member Margaret “Ticky” Hendricks said of the new members.

Hendricks, Mary Kimmel and James Walstrom lost their bid for re-election to the school board when Bream, Rupp and Ron Johnston were elected in 2011.

“I knew several of the board members were resentful of him. I think there has been resentment with these board members because they think Denny [Murray] did not take cuts as he should,” Hendricks said.

Bream, Rupp, Johnston, Board President Ryan Beers and Elizabeth Chapman have been critical of Murray’s management of the district.

Without naming board members past or present, Bream said she “continues to get the sense some have never questioned Murray.”

“I don’t think Tom will back away from those questions. I think he will work with us,” she said of Otto.

An inquiry in January by Beers, a 2002 Altoona Area High School graduate, into salary increases apparently given to administrative staff above contracted rates dating back to 2007 is the most recent and most significant question of Murray’s management.

Murray has said he wants “vindication” and has hired a law firm to represent him.

Investigations by the Auditor General’s Office and district solicitor Dave Andrews are continuing. Auditor General’s Office personnel could not estimate the end date for their investigation, and Andrews is waiting for Murray’s attorney, Efrem Grail of Pittsburgh, to confirm that Murray has recovered enough from his January shoulder surgery to participate in an interview for his investigation.

Otto said he has read Mirror articles about the ongoing investigation of the salary increases but said he is not concerned with issues he has no history with.

“Leaders that are up to challenges can’t be shaken by circumstances at any particular time,” he said.

While that issue is unique to Altoona Area, the school board shares obstacles with other districts, including looming financial deficits created by rising costs of the Public School Employee Retirement System, which is controlled by the state.

Hendricks said she has been painted as a “yes man” for Murray but said that’s not true. She said she regrets voting against a tax increase Murray proposed during her tenure that would have helped the district save for PSERS costs.

Hendricks fears the board majority will handle the district’s financial problems by voting for budget cuts that could harm the district.

“I’m glad I’m not there [on the board] now. I wouldn’t want to be there. I feel bad for Tom Otto. I know him. I wish him well,” she said.

Dry, Richard Lockard, Vice President Maryann Joyce Bistline and Tim Lucas have often been more in favor of administrators’ spending recommendations than the board majority, which has disagreed with real estate purchases and construction projects, including the Altoona Area Junior High School. Planning for that combined school, to replace Keith and Roosevelt junior highs, started in 2005.

“I want to give our kids a good education,” Bream said. “But at some point you have to be realistic. Do you need three artificial turf fields? These kind of things are over and above what is necessary.”

Lucas favors district expenses that have come under fire, including the junior high school built shortly before his election.

“I view myself as representing the students on behalf of the community,” Lucas said.

“You have to have a good deal of respect for Dr. Murray for doing what he’s done with a low tax base and a smaller amount of local capital to work with. We have wonderful teachers and students and buildings,” he said.

District spokeswoman Paula Foreman said Murray’s reputation has been built on frugality. The district has raised taxes only three times in the past 25 years.

“He’s facing a lot of criticism right now, but that was all Dr. Murray,” she said of the infrequent tax increases.

In December, Murray achieved a net interest savings of $2 million for the district by refinancing its bonds.

Otto has the full backing of the board and contention involving Murray will dissipate, Lucas said, when Otto begins work at the district as early as June.

“But to say we are all going to agree on everything he agrees with is not true. As a board with a superintendent, we work as a team,” he said. “We have to agree to disagree – but in the end come to a conclusion.”

Otto, a former teacher and principal in the district, is the first successor named to take over one of the three superintendent positions in Blair County that are opening with retirements: Murray is retiring after 29 years in Altoona; William Miller is retiring after 43 years in Tyrone; and Paul Gallagher is retiring after 14 years in Hollidaysburg.

“These are difficult times in public education,” Gallagher said. “As a superintendent, there are issues involving budgets and curriculum that we didn’t face five to 10 years ago. All of those do take their toll on superintendents and other folks in the district.”

In addition to government-mandated curriculum changes and funding cuts, school boards in Altoona and Hollidaysburg have become increasingly conservative since the 2009 elections, challenging superintendents to fend off looming financial deficits by cutting expenses related to school buildings and administrative positions rather than raising real estate taxes.

While conservative board members have grown in number on the Altoona and Hollidaysburg school boards, that hasn’t appeared to be the trend statewide.

The most recent Pennsylvania School Boards Association survey shows Republican school board members decreased from 65 percent in 2006 to 54 percent of all members in 2010.

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