Murray, board wait for report on raises

Who will the state auditor general’s report favor is the burning question.

An Altoona Area school board investigation found that Superintendent Dennis Murray gave 10 administrative employees raises above contracted amounts and received raises himself without board approval.

Whether the auditor general’s report matches the board’s investigation completed by Philadelphia-area attorney Paul Cianci remains to be seen.

The Altoona Area school board has reviewed the report and is preparing a response to be included in the final audit, Cianci of Levin Legal Group said.

He declined to comment on the tone of the response, saying, “The response will speak for itself.”

Board President Ryan Beers said the audit report could be made public this week.

“I look forward to all evidence being presented so we can get all this resolved,” he said.

Murray’s attorney, Kyle Bahr of Reed Smith in Pittsburgh, said in an email he suspects the board’s response to the report will be a negative one.

“The fact that the Board is even preparing a response shows that they’re not happy with what’s in the Auditor General’s report,” Bahr’s email said. “But what’s in that report comes from the Auditor General, an unbiased, neutral and independent investigator. We think the Auditor General’s report will have a lot more truth in it than what’s in the biased findings of the Philadelphia lawyers who were hired and paid by the Board.”

Bahr has not seen a draft of the audit report.

“Our concern is the slim possibility that the board’s response will influence the Auditor General’s findings about Dr. Murray. If that should happen – and we think it’s unlikely – then due process should allow Dr. Murray to also provide a response, to maintain the fairness of the Auditor General’s independent investigation.”

Auditor general spokeswoman Susan Woods said the audit “is a general audit of the school district. There is sharing with no one outside of the auditee.”

However, Murray and Bahr have said they earlier received a verbal summary from an auditor general investigator of the results.

“If that was the case, then it was totally improper,” Woods said. “I have no further comment.”

Although the verbal summary reportedly had him in the clear, Murray is not sure what the final results will show.

“It could bury me. I don’t know,” Murray said. But he believes it is the only fair foundation to base a settlement on.

Legal fees not disclosed

At stake in a potential settlement between Murray and the board is payment of fees for Murray’s legal counsel.

Murray’s attorneys have not released their hourly rate but have demanded the school board pay his legal fees.

Murray’s contract states: “The district superintendent shall be idemnified and held harmless by the ‘School District’ from any and all demands, claims suits, actions and legal proceedings, demands, claims brought against the ‘District Superintendent’ in his individual or official capacity as an employee of the district.”

Murray is also seeking to be made whole. Whether making Murray whole means suing Beers is not certain.

“It could.” Bahr said.

Murray apparently has not lost any compensation because of the board’s investigation. When Beers shared his inquiries with the board in January, Murray was away from work, preparing for shoulder surgery. Murray’s voluntary time away from work for recovery transitioned into administrative leave with pay in March after a board vote.

“I am informed that Dr. Murray received his full salary through June 30,” Cianci wrote in an email. And pursuant to Murray’s contract, Cianci wrote he was informed that “Dr. Murray will receive $228,194 over four years, in payment of his accrued sick and vacation time. This has not yet been put in front of the Board for formal approval, and I understand that will be done in due course.”

Cianci also wrote Murray received full pay while off on medical leave.

Murray’s salary of $182,607 for the current year ranks him the 36th highest paid superintendent in the state, according to 2012-13 school year state records of professional school employees.

Some raises in excess

Although the school board’s investigation accuses Murray of setting his own raises, that investigation found that over the course of Murray’s last 20 years as superintendent, his total salary was about $7,000 less than he could have obtained under the minimum raises promised in his contracts.

Under his contracts, Murray was to receive the “minimum cost-of-living adjustment plus 1 percent.”

For his investigation, Cianci said he used the cost-of-living adjustments for state officials, a rate released each year by the Commonwealth’s Office of the Budget.

A June 17 statement read by a solicitor corrected a calculation of the percentages of the annual salary increases received by Murray compared with the percentages of the minimum annual salary increases provided under the contract.

That statement was not a concession that the investigation was flawed or that the investigation included inaccuracies regarding raises that Murray gave himself, Cianci’s letter said.

“That correction has no bearing at all on the Board’s findings issued on June 5, 2013, that Murray obtained raises and gave raises without Board approval at a public meeting,” Cianci wrote.

The board found that in some years Murray received raises without board approval that exceeded the minimum permitted under his contracts, Cianci reported.

Murray said under his latest contract, he was entitled to 3.4 percent in each of the last three years.

In 2010 Murray said he received a raise of 5 percent, took a voluntary pay freeze in 2011 and got a 2 percent increase in 2012.

Murray acknowledged that the board did not set the 2010-11 raise, but said that it also slipped by him because a payroll worker possibly set the raise based on previous knowledge of his contracts.

He said the raise might have been carried over from the previous contract or could have resulted from a clause in his contract that states “the district superintendent shall receive all personal benefits and incentives provided to other professional employees of the district.” Middle management employees received a 4 percent raise in 2010-11.

Murray said he took a 2 percent raise in 2012-13 because middle management employees were given a 2 percent increase.

“I could have taken the 3.4 percent,” he said, which was the minimum cost of living plus 1 percent.

In the 2011-12, he took a zero percent increase because he negotiated a wage freeze with employees. “I could have taken the 3.4 percent, but that wouldn’t have been smart when you’re the guy negotiating pay freezes,” he said.

“The board was never consulted, and the board never consulted us [including payroll office],” Murray said of the raises he received.

The board’s argument regarding Murray’s raises, as made by Cianci’s report, is that Murray had a responsibility to inform the board that he was adjusting his own salary and to inform them that was the board’s duty.

Where responsibility lies

“I guess we did [discuss Murray’s salary]. I’m trying to remember,” former five-term board member Margaret “Ticky” Hendricks said. “It was up to the board to bring up salary. It was our fault then. It wasn’t his fault,” she said. “We voted on the contract. If the salaries are not on there, it’s our fault,” she said.

Murray’s three-year contract beginning with the 2010-11 school year was signed in 2009, district solicitor David Andrews said.

“It mentioned the 2009-10 salary as a base, but the first year of the contract was 2010-11, and the salary was not set,” he said.

Andrews said his involvement with the contract was measured out by the board.

“I was given a copy of the contract [by the board], and I signed off on it as solicitor,” he said of the first year. “I haven’t been consulted on the contract after that,” he said.

Without a specific raise discussed for the 2010-11 school year, Murray said, a payroll worker drew up all instructional spreadsheets for the year and included the 5 percent increase for him.

Because of the nature of the investigation and attorneys involved, Human Resources Director Margaret McMinn could not comment on blame placed on her by Murray’s attorneys for the raises.

However, if she had her preference, McMinn would offer a public response, Community Relations Director Paula Foreman said.

Board member Dick Lockard expressed regret for not having discussed Murray’s annual raise as his contract requires.

“Do you have to vote on that [adjusting Murray’s salary] each year? I don’t know,” Lockard, a board member for more than 40 years, said. “We never did. We should have voted on it each year.”

The variance between the amount he was over the minimum in 2010-11 and under the minimum in 2012-13 was 0.2 percent in excess of the minimum raises he was entitled to in his contract, Murray said.

“I think there is blame on my side and blame on their side,” Murray said. “Why don’t they come and annually adjust that [raise]? In the end, it was adjusted.”