AASD board releases raise findings

Superintendent Dennis Murray authorized pay raises for 10 employees and himself without board approval, according to a report released by the Altoona Area school board Wednesday night.

But Murray, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, said he is innocent and expects an investigation by Department of the Auditor General will prove it.

He also laid the blame for the problems on the school board.

More than 100 people attended the special board meeting at the Altoona Area Junior High School, where Levin Legal Group attorney Paul Ciansi revealed the names of employees who he said Murray gave raises to without board approval. The school board hired the Philadelphia legal firm to investigate a number of raises.

Ciansi said the evidence shows that those people are not culpable for the fact that their raises were given without the board’s knowledge.

“It should be noted, and, in fact, emphasized that based on the evidence we received, these persons either believed their raises were approved by the board or had no reason to believe that they were not approved, or were led to believe that their raises were approved by the board,” he said.

Until he was placed on administrative leave in March, Murray had served as superintendent since 1987.

“The Altoona Area School District investigation report is very disappointing to me,” Murray said.

“I assure you that everything I have done in my almost 30 years as superintendent of the Altoona Area School District has been for the benefit of the district, students, parents, faculty, administrators and the district’s fine support team.”

The investigation used a spreadsheet from the district business office of all employees’ salaries dating back to 1991.

“An investigation going back that far would be impossible,” Ciansi said because investigators didn’t have access to board minutes going back that far.

But evidence revealed that certain raises were implemented for certain people without attaining board approval at a public meeting, an issue board President Ryan Beers raised in January.

Ciansi said he obtained evidence that Murray sent a memo signed by him to the then payroll supervisor instructing her to implement the pay adjustments contained in the memo and that the memo included the pay increases for Murray.

“As to the 2010 year, Murray claims that he did not pay attention to the amount listed as his salary or the percentage of his raise as reflected in the memo. He said they simply slipped through him without being noticed,” Ciansi said.

“He also noted the board did not question his salary during those years. The board notes that Dr. Murray never advised the board that it did not determine his salary during those years,” Ciansi said.

If the board gave Murray the minimum required salary increase, it would be slightly less than it is now, Ciansi said. But that argument misses the point.

“[Murray] contends raises were discussed during executive sessions, but evidence does not bear that out. Further, no action can be taken in executive session, and even if raises had been discussed, it was incumbent on Dr. Murray to have ensured action was taken in public before he caused raises to be paid,” Ciansi said.

In regard to the raises Murray gave to himself, in 2010 his salary of $179,026 represented a 5 percent increase from the prior year and in 2012, his $182,607 salary represented a 2 percent increase from the prior year. In neither case did the board approve those specific increases.

Ciansi said Murray contends the board approved salaries he authorized merely because total amount of payroll was less than total amount budgeted by the board, but that position is not consistent with the law.

Ciansi also said that Murray acknowledged that he had former assistant superintendents George Cardone and Frank Meloy’s salaries increased because they handled a lot of responsibilities and did a good job.

Evidence obtained also indicates Murray increased then assistant superintendent Norman Miller’s salary in 2010 to $107,000, even though he had been hired at a salary of $105,000.

Murray said a state audit will show a different story.

“Contrast this June 5 report with the results of the Auditor General’s office. I feel the Auditor General’s results will be fair, thorough and will be on the same issues. Though it has not been published, I’m hoping it will be released this month,” Murray said.

An Auditor General investigator outlined its findings to Reed Smith, the law firm representing Murray, and expressed a willingness to describe them to the district, Murray said, claiming auditors found no material or significant problems or errors and nothing fraudulent or intentional by anyone.

They did find minor mistakes by the board that could have been avoided with clearer reporting or other procedures, Murray said. “To the best of my knowledge there is no fault attributed to me or any of my staff.”

Murray said although some years his raises were higher than the minimum, that’s not a violation of his contract, which allows for raises “no less than the minimum cost of living expenses plus 1 percent.”

During a public comment session, Bob Baranic asked how the board could not have been aware of the unauthorized raises if they were, in fact unauthorized. The board approves its annual budget in whole and the budget is later audited, he said.

The board did not answer that or any questions.

For the 2009-10 school year, Murray’s salary – in the range of $170,000 – represented a 5 percent increase from the previous year. That October, he and the board discussed a renewed contract. But the board never mentioned salary, Murray said.

“The buck doesn’t stop with the superintendent, the buck stops with the board. There was no process in place. How can you go all these years and not know what my salary was? They should have talked about salary,” he said.

“They give me a new contract, they sign it – ‘OK, now let’s talk salary,’ they should have said. But they put the ball in my court and now they are complaining about it.”

He said the same lack of board interest occurred with Pam Waddell’s salary [the largest increase at issue], he said. “They expressly approved her change of status publicly. They never mentioned salary at all.”

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