The state Department of Education would be wise to remind school districts of the need for public votes when it comes to spending money, including budgeted raises.
In a story published Sunday, Aug. 4, the Mirror reviewed actions - and lack of actions - contributing to the Altoona Area School District's unauthorized raises and a related investigation by the state auditor general's office.
The auditor general's office recently concluded that former district Superintendent Dennis Murray, by granting employee promotions, transfers and pay raises, violated Section 508 of the state school code, requiring school boards to vote on fixing salaries at a public meeting.
However, a former investigator for the auditor general's office admitted to a different conclusion.
"My understanding of the school code is that the school board and the solicitor are ultimately responsible," investigator Michael Bolen said.
In the past, the Mirror has maintained and it still maintains that Murray knew all too well that his raise and raises for district administrative employees needed to be voted upon during a public meeting.
But attorney Gene Connors of Reed Smith, who represents Murray, sent a letter to the auditor general's office asking for a corrected report.
"The audit report...ignores that each year, as part of the budget process, the AASD board does and did approve the lump sum of money to be spent collectively for all administrative staff salaries," the Connors letter states.
While we'd like to think that every public official knows that budgeting money is not the same as voting to spend money, that's apparently not the case with some school leaders.
"There's been an ongoing, persistent position that some administrators take that if it is budgeted, you can spend it," Pennsylvania School Boards Association Chief Legal Counsel Emily Leader told the Mirror. "I hear it half a dozen times a year."
She and Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, agree that a school board must vote publicly on proposed raises. But Buckheit said he thinks Section 508 and the School Code are subject to multiple interpretations.
"Section 508 and much of the school code is not granular enough," Buckheit said. "It has sort of a vague language. You can interpret things differently and there is no policy direction from the Pennsylvania Department of Education."
While the school code may be in need of scrutiny and updating, we think these kind of comments should prompt the state Department of Education to provide all school districts with instructions on how to meet Section 508.
And if the school code is in need of change, we suggest lawmakers add a penalty for any school official whose actions result in raises bypassing the Section 508 requirements.
Perhaps if school officials are held personally responsible for the cost of unauthorized raises, there would be no room for interpretation.