Much to be learned from Murray, AASD case

In reacting to the Pennsylvania Office of Auditor General report last week finding the Altoona Area School District violated the state’s school code for granting 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, former Altoona Superintendent Dennis Murray said, “There is enough blame to go around.”

He is certainly right about that.

Unfortunately, at the top of the list of those to blame is Murray himself and his penchant to keep his salary under wraps.

As one of the state’s most tenured and respected superintendents, we believe Murray knew all too well that the awarding of raises to administrative employees needed to be voted upon at a public meeting.

Instead, following an internal investigation, a law firm contracted by the Altoona Area school board concluded that Murray gave 10 administrative employees – and himself – unauthorized increases dating back to 2007. Limited by auditing standards issued by the federal government, the auditor general investigators examined raises for five of those employees and reached the same conclusion.

Since Altoona school board President Ryan Beers raised the accusation in January, Murray has maintained his innocence and said, “I’ve never done anything with malice.”

There is no question Altoona enjoyed an excellent academic reputation and thrived financially under Murray’s leadership as its $52 million fund balance is among the most among Pennsylvania school districts.

The district went much of Murray’s 29-year tenure, which ended with his retirement last week (the last six months of which were spent on either medical or administrative leave) without a tax increase.

Regardless of how much money Murray earned or saved the district over the years, that doesn’t justify a lack of transparency, which can be the product of excessive power.

To that end, we’ve seen bad things happen to some local giants who stretched their tenures.

We saw it with Joe Paterno, and we’ve now seen it with Dennis Murray. We also saw veteran state legislators Bob Jubelirer and Rick Geist beaten at the end of their most distinguished careers.

All had considerable power in their respective arenas, and maybe there’s a lesson to be learned about staying too long.

Murray contended the increase put through for himself in 2012 was still less than his contract called for, and in 2011, he took a zero percent increase because he negotiated a wage freeze with employees.

That’s to his credit, and we feel such discretion was all the more reason to keep Murray’s salary out in the open – where, by law, it belonged.

Murray spent much of his tenure enjoying a strong working relationship with Altoona’s school board, something that changed during the last couple of years when new board members, to their credit, started asking more questions and demanding more transparency than in the past.

The boards that contributed to a culture in which the superintendent could put through increases without board approval did the district a disservice as well.

“Without knowing what happened in those private meetings … the school board is the governing body, the elected body, so they do share responsibility for this,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said. “That’s an important point. … Now I’m sure 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.”

Yet to be resolved is whether Murray and his lawyers will accept the auditor general’s findings and whether the school district will be on the hook for Murray’s legal fees during the process of defending himself against the investigation.

In seeking resolution to this embarrassment, here’s hoping Murray, the school board and the legal teams for both can put the best interests of the Altoona Area School District first.