Ex-board member upset about treatment of Murray

A former school director said the current board is crucifying Altoona Area School District Superintendent Dennis Murray.

Murray is retiring today as superintendent after 29 years at the helm, but his final year has been marred by accusations that he gave 10 administrative employees and himself raises without board approval.

“The way they are treating him is terrible,” five-term school board member Margaret “Ticky” Hendricks said.

“Look at all the things he’s done here in the community.” She noted the nonprofit foundation that Murray established for the district has a $1.6 million endowment fund.

Altoona Area also has the third-largest fund balance committed to paying its obligations and debts among the state’s 500 districts, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The district’s total fund balance including funds unassigned to specific obligations is $52 million.

“This is how you repay him, by crucifying him?” Hendricks, who lost her bid for re-election in 2011, asked.

Hendricks blames board President Ryan Beers for the controversy, calling him a “pipsqueak who came in with a vendetta.”

Prior to being elected to the board, Beers was a volunteer football coach and heard complaints about the weight room at Mansion Park.

“He said it needed redone. It was passed over by the board; I don’t remember,” said Hendricks, who was on the board at the time. “But he came with his whole presentation. He was upset with Denny. Now he got on the board, and did what he came to do.”

Beers is not running for a second term, he said because he wants to spend more time with his son and wife.

He has said the weight room issue showed him how hard it is for people to get their voices heard and was a factor for why he ran for school board, but said Hendricks’ comments are inaccurate.

“That’s her opinion, and she’s entitled to it. It’s not accurate at all,” he said. “When I was elected, I was elected to do a job, not personal at all. I saw discrepancies [in administrative employee pay and their contracts], and my job was to ensure they be addressed.”

Costs connected to investigation climbing

The board has spent more than $30,000 so far in its investigation of the raises.

The district paid Levin Legal Group PC, which was hired to complete the investigation, $10,781.65 in mid-June, $9,464 in May and $3,179 in April. The district paid the Andrews and Beard law firm $6,770 specific to the investigation from January to May, documents obtained through a right-to-know request by the Mirror showed.

The transfer of the investigation from Andrews to Levin’s Paul Cianci was the result of Andrews feeling that he could be called as a witness for some type of legal proceeding.

Murray’s attorney Kyle Bahr said he could not comment on that.

However, he said he and other Reed Smith attorneys working with Murray are exploring all avenues to make him whole.

“We are exploring legal options, but Dr. Murray is still open to a settlement with the district, the board and Beers,” Bahr said. “So far, there has been no invitation to talk. But we are open to it. [Reed Smith has said publicly Murray was open to a settlement.] So far, the sentiment hasn’t been returned,” Bahr said.

When Andrews recused himself, he recommended Levin Legal Group and a majority of the board voted to hire the firm to continue the investigation.

There was no board vote to appoint Andrews to start the investigation, however.

Official board minutes show that Beers did not get a board vote to hire Andrews for the investigation. Andrews said it didn’t need to be brought to a vote, but it was discussed in executive session.

The board approves Andrews’ hourly rates during public meetings. Employees and board members of the district may subsequently appoint him to a task, Andrews said.

He said school district employees frequently assign him to work without board approval. He said Beers’ request was uniquely transparent compared with other assignments he’s received from employees at school districts who’ve hired him.

“That was more public than most of my assignments,” he said. “A lot of times I get a phone call.”

Still, to Murray, Beers’ actions seem to be inconsistent with his principles.

“There was a little bit of hypocrisy happening there in the sense that I’m being accused of giving salary raises without board authorization and yet Ryan hired Andrews right in front of the board and didn’t get authorization for it,” Murray said.

However, Hendrick’s comments about a vendetta by Beers doesn’t carry any weight with Murray.

“That’s a rumor as to why he’s upset with me, but I don’t know that’s true. I would hope not, because that’s silly,” he said.

He said Beers’ complaint about the old weight room spurred the construction of the district’s Sheetz Athletic Training Center.

“The Sheetz fitness center was built after Ryan came to the board to complain about the weight room. I didn’t tell him not to come to the board [with his concerns],” Murray said.

“Ryan actually should pat himself on the back for calling that to our attention and motivating us to get moving and get a new athletic training facility.”