Lawyers: AASD probe flawed

Altoona Area Superintendent Dennis Murray’s attorneys are speaking out against what they claim is a flawed investigation by the district and are eagerly awaiting results of an auditor general’s report before talking about a settlement.

The school board’s investigation, conducted by Philadelphia-based Levin Legal Group attorney Paul Cianci, included inaccuracies regarding raises that Murray gave himself that were corrected by the district’s solicitor on Monday.

But regardless of the errors, which Murray’s attorneys said are unforgivable, Reed Smith Attorney Kyle Bahr said other factors, including the manner in which board President Ryan Beers initiated the investigation, violated Murray’s contract. The Reed Smith law firm is representing Murray.

Bahr said Murray is looking to be made whole.

“Dr. Murray’s name has been dragged through the mud, and the board needs to make amends to that,” he said.

In addition, Murray is seeking for the district to pay his legal fees, but a dollar amount has not been disclosed.

Bahr enumerated two breaches of Murray’s contract.

Regarding the entire pay raise issue, including raises for 11 employees and Murray, Reed Smith is claiming a breach of a stipulation in his contract stating “all criticisms complaints and suggestions called to the school district shall be referred to the district superintendent: for study, disposition, or recommendations as appropriate.”

Bahr said, “Beers made his findings public. He should have taken his issues to the superintendent.”

Beers said he believes the board filled that obligation. Even though Murray was absent for the public Jan. 22 meeting during which Beers aired his inquiries and asked the district solicitor investigate, Beers said Murray knew about the inquiries after that meeting but chose to retain lawyers.

Beers has said he had been privately researching discrepancies in employees’ pay for months prior to airing his inquiries in January.

“This investigation has been going on … why did he not meet with me?” Murray said a few days ago.

Bahr also claimed the board’s examination of raises, including Murray’s, allegedly breached a section of the superintendent’s contract stating that “any controversy or claim arising out of or related to this contract … shall be submitted to arbitration in accordance with the National Rules for the Resolution of Employment Disputes of the American Arbitration Association.”

Bahr said, “This issue should be going to arbitration instead of being played out in public forum like this.”

Having an arbitration may be useful to find a good settlement, Bahr said. But the auditor general’s report will be a “major step” toward reaching a settlement, he said.

“Dr. Murray is open to a fair resolution based on the auditor general’s report,” Bahr said. “We’d be willing to drop claims of his breach of contract in that settlement.”

On Monday, the board’s solicitor Carl Beard of the Andrews and Beard law firm corrected Cianci’s report. The cumulative increases for Murray though not formally voted on by the board were within what his contracts allowed. Some raises taken by Murray were apparently lower than the minimum allowed under his contracts. Over the course of Murray’s last 20 years as superintendent, he received a total salary that was about $7,000 less than the minimum salary he could have been paid under his contracts, Beard said.

A statement released by Reed Smith states Beard’s 11-paragraph statement on Monday “downplayed the seriousness of the errors in Mr. Cianci’s report and investigation.”

Murray and his counsel met with Cianci for nearly three hours on May 2, and Reed Smith said not once did Cianci asked about Murray’s salary. Reed Smith claimed Cianci only began inquiring about Murray’s salary on May 21.

“It concerned us that Mr. Beers, despite his months of secret investigation, never raised Dr. Murray’s salary as an issue and that Cianci was asking these questions at such a late time, but we cooperated with Mr. Cianci and answered his questions. We also showed Mr. Cianci how, by averaging Dr. Murray’s salary increases, Dr. Murray had received less salary than was required by his contract with the Board. But Mr. Cianci’s report completely ignored the critical information that we provided, and instead condemned Dr. Murray for allegedly giving himself excessive pay increases. That is unforgivable, and reveals the bias that exists throughout Mr. Cianci’s report,” the Reed Smith statement reads.

The auditor general’s report is due out in about three weeks, Beers said. He said the district received the report to add its response prior to it becoming public, a routine procedure, an auditor general spokesman said.

Murray’s attorneys say the auditor general’s report is the only unbiased report to base a settlement on.

Althought Murray’s raises were within his contracts’ limits, the Levin Legal Group maintains that Murray gave raises to employees and received raises himself without a board vote.

Bahr said Cianci’s findings failed to mention “how lax the Board had been in exercising oversight of the budget and requiring approvals that the law requires the Board, not Dr. Murray.”

“Mr. Beers, the Board, and Mr. Cianci have tried to make an issue out of Pamela Waddell’s roughly $9,500 salary increase in the 2010-11 school year. As Dr. Murray told all of the investigators, but was omitted from Mr. Cianci’s findings, the Board publicly approved this salary increase as part of Ms. Waddell’s promotion from the lower-paid Confidential Secretary position to the higher-paid position of Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent. Ms. Waddell was paid less than the person she was replacing, and within the range established by a salary study commissioned and adopted by the Board in 2000 and still in place today.” Waddell also assumed added duties in her new position. “As with all of the other AASD employees whose salaries have been scrutinized, Ms. Waddell earned the raise that she was given.”

Murray said he doesn’t know exactly what the auditor general’s report will reveal, but he said only it will lead to a resolution.

“What we need to do here,” Murray said, “is we need to get a fair and fully independent, impartial agency who would be the auditor general.”

“My attorneys could come out with their recommendation,” Murray said. “But the only people, honest to God, to do that is the auditor general.”

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