In a 6-3 vote Tuesday evening, the Altoona Area school board put longtime Superintendent Dennis Murray on paid administrative leave and hired a law firm near Philadelphia to continue an investigation into several administrative pay raises.
Board President Ryan Beers proposed putting Murray immediately on paid leave and hiring Levin Legal Group PC. Board members Elizabeth Chapman, Dick Lockard, Sharon Bream, Cheryl Rupp, Ron Johnston and Beers voted for the measure.
Skip Dry, Tim Lucas and Maryann Joyce Bistline voted against the resolution. Members who cast no votes also attended Murray's retirement dinner on March 16.
"The resolution won't change the ultimate outcome of the process, and I think, more importantly, there is going to be astronomical legal fees involved in both sides that may well be absorbed by the district, and that is not good for the district, not good for the students. That's not good for educational programs," Lucas said.
Bistline said no explanation was needed for her vote, and Dry said voting no "was the right thing to do."
In January, the board asked solicitor Dave Andrews to look into at least six administrative raises above contracted amounts for which Beers said he could not find a record of board approval.
Andrews will turn the investigation over to the Philadelphia law firm because of a possible conflict of interest in the event that Andrews is needed as a witness.
Neither the board nor Andrews' law partner, Carl Beard, specified for what or whom Andrews could be a witness because the investigation is ongoing.
Andrews' separation from the investigation was requested by Murray's legal team.
Beard read a statement on behalf of Andrews, who was handling labor negotiations at another district.
"As a result of some unexpected positions presented by attorneys for Dr. Murray at a meeting last week, there is a possibility I may be needed as a witness for the school board at a later date."
"Therefore, I have informed the board it would be advisable to have separate counsel of this matter," he said.
The implication, Beard said, is that if discussions in school board executive sessions are part of the investigation, Andrews could have been at those meetings.
Beard said the investigation has not been concluded and he could not comment on what more needs to be done. He said Andrews interviewed Murray on Thursday.
Murray has not returned to work since he had shoulder surgery in January stemming from a December fall at a school.
The administrative leave does not limit or deny Murray's right to sick leave and other leave to which he is entitled, Beers said.
The resolution states that if it is determined compensation was improperly paid, the board wants to assess the protocols and controls in place that allowed it, obtain recommendations for necessary protocols and receive legal opinions for recovery of improperly paid compensation.
Levin Legal Group, hired at a rate ranging between $170 and $190 per hour, is to continue the investigation and provide recommendations.
Beard said he sees no problem with the group utilizing information from Andrews' investigation to date.
Levin is expected to conduct interviews and have cooperation of district employees who might be asked to provide documents.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.