The Altoona Area School District violated Pennsylvania School Code when Superintendent Dennis Murray granted employee promotions, transfers and pay raises without the school board voting on the changes at a public meeting and without documenting the approvals in the board meeting minutes, the state's auditor general said.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his investigators found Murray had given unauthorized raises to employees dating back to 2007.
"I want to make it very clear," DePasquale said at a press conference Monday at the Altoona Area Public Library. "This is something we will be watching like a hawk moving forward. We want our kids to get a better education, and this money was basically taken from the kids of this area."
Murray officially retired Sunday after 29 years as superintendent.
"These are not criminal violations," DePasquale said. "It's a law that's violated, but it's not a criminal area. It's an area where it would be incumbent on school board and Department of Education to try to get the money back. It may not be possible, but that's the legal recourse."
Murray's Pittsburgh attorney Efrem Grail wrote in a statement that the auditor general's report, "blames Dr. Murray for the Board and its lawyer's [solicitor's] own failures to ratify in public the actions it took in executive session, and to document its actions appropriately, as the law [school code] requires."
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale talks about the release of the AAHS audit at a press conference at the Altoona Area Library on Monday. Danielle Mariano, director for the bureau of school audits at the department of the auditor general, and Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, look on.
The audit report states that some board members were aware of salary changes Murray proposed because of private executive sessions allowed under school code for personnel discussion.
"The district's stance is that the raises were not discussed in executive session," Board President Ryan Beers said.
DePasquale focused blame on Murray as he should have known to properly get a public vote for raises, but he didn't exclude the board from fault.
Attorney General's report
The audit includes four recommendations for the Altoona Area School District:
-To comply with state school code
-To ensure personnel actions are approved in a public board meeting
-To ensure all personnel transactions are appropriately recorded in board meeting minutes
-To develop policies and procedures that require verification that salary changes have been board approved
"Without knowing what happened in those private meetings - at the end of the day, the school board is the governing body, the elected body, so they do share responsibility for this. That's an important point. The school board is the elected body of the school district. Now I'm sure the there are instances where the superintendent can move a couple of dollars around maybe without talking to the school board ... but it is the school board's job at the end of the day, and they are the ones the voters can hold accountable."
The audit report includes four recommendations for the district: to comply with state school code, to ensure personnel actions are approved in a public board meeting, to ensure all personnel transactions are appropriately recorded in board meeting minutes and to develop policies and procedures that require verification that salary changes have been board approved.
Beers said the district already does the first three. On the verification of board approval, "Here on out, all nonunion administrative staff salaries will be listed with their increases so that there is no discrepancy," Beers said.
Murray said the board has always had annual budget reviews and regular meetings to ask salary questions.
"Findings indicate that the board needs to change their process," Murray said. "There is enough blame to go around."
Beers believes the board has a nominal amount of responsibility to bear.
"The board has a responsibility to ask questions. But the board of school directors is not a panel of nine psychics. These items were never brought before the board to be voted on so how can the board be responsible for something that was done without the board's knowledge?"
A response from the district management included in the report showed how Murray achieved the raises for certain employees.
In one instance, Murray gave a raise with his signature despite Human Relations Director Margaret McMinn's denial to sign off on it because there was no board approval.
"In the case of the newly hired assistant superintendent, who was hired by the board on April 19, 2010, at a salary of $105,000, the documentation supporting the $2,000 salary increase on May 27, 2010, is incomplete." The documents were signed by Murray "and not the HR Director because the HR Director refused to sign off on the $2,000 increase as it was not board approved," the district management response stated.
The raise was received by Norm Miller, who was Murray's heir-apparent until he resigned for a job at another district in 2012.
Grail responded in an email that Murray "'Does not remember the events described in the School Board's Response in quite the same way as does the Board." Beers said the auditor general report should put an end to any doubts that the board's investigation, costing the district more than $30,000, was biased.
"Now the auditor general confirms the findings and that speculation will stop," he said.
Murray's lawyers, who had hoped the audit report would be the base for a settlement, aren't satisfied.
"Dr. Murray calls for the full release of the auditor general's investigation and all correspondence relating to it. Dr. Murray especially calls for the public release of the Office Of Special Investigations Report on its investigation of the salary increases." That office aided auditor general investigators.
"There should be full accountability for the work of public officials assigned to the audit of public spending."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.