The Mesa Public Schools governing board remained tight-lipped about the sudden suspension of Superintendent Ember Conley during its first meeting following her leave.
More than 50 community members and district employees packed the board meeting room on Nov. 26 demanding answers about the unexpected leadership disruption as well as the future of MPS.
But attorney Robert Haws told the crowd he has advised all board members to remain silent on the matter until further notice.
“The board appreciates the community’s strong interests in the superintendent status and the district’s leadership, but the district does not, however, comment on pending personnel matters for a variety of reasons,” Haws said.
“And it’s based on my advice,” he continued. “But please know the board is diligently working on these issues and additional information will be shared with you when appropriate to do so.”
Turmoil continues to surround the district a week after the board voted on Nov. 18 to place Conley on indefinite, paid administrative leave just 18 months into her three-year contract.
The district has refused to provide any explanation as to why but has said it is non-disciplinary.
Now, a criminal complaint has been filed by former board president Ben Smith with the Attorney General’s office accusing Conley of theft and embezzlement related to administrative raises and promotion salaries he claims exceeded the amounts approved by the board.
The three-page complaint cites a June 6 memo with approved $5,000 raises awarded to four members of Conley’s executive team: Assistant Superintendent of Business & Support Services Scott Thompson, Chief Financial Officer Daniel O’Brien, Chief Technology Officer David Sanders and Dobson/Westwood Area Assistant Superintendent Arlinda Mann.
Smith says his own research – which he claims was confirmed by an “anonymous source” – indicates the increases were “drastically higher” than what the board approved.
He also alleged several Mesa employees may have received salaries higher than what was set in contracts approved by the board.
Smith told the East Valley Tribune: While he reached his own findings, he decided to leave them out of the complaint in order for the Attorney General’s office to proceed without any biases.
“I don’t consider myself an expert, but I do have a certain set of skills I gained from being on the board,” he said. “Including knowing how to navigate and read the documentation and understand the contracts – but there are people much smarter than me I felt needed to look at this.”
“If you look at the complaint, I didn’t include any of my findings – that way the agents can do their investigation and they’re not jumping into this looking for a specific number,” he added. “I want them to go into this taking an unbiased approach.”
Smith, who helped hire Conley in 2018, said he did not make his decision to file the complaint lightly.
He said he has always thought highly of the superintendent.
“It’s frustrating some of the news stations are going at directions,” he said. “If you’re looking for black and white, then yes I’m accusing her [Conley] of these things – but there is a grey area where I didn’t just throw out an accusation.”
Mesa Public Schools spokeswoman Heidi Hurst said providing “additional compensation” to district leadership has been “long-standing” in Arizona school districts and Mesa employee contracts include language that a board-approved compensation plan may override salaries specified in a contract.
“It is standard district procedure that due to the timing of the legislative budget process, contracts are issued and then adjusted based on the Board-approved compensation plan,” she wrote in a statement.
The district has not addressed Smith’s claims that the SET executives’ raises were higher than what the board okayed.
The Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the allegations, according to spokeswoman Katie Conner.
“We are aware of the allegations involving Mesa Public Schools and are reviewing specific complaints made to our office,” she wrote. “Additional information will be provided when available.”
Parents of special education students last week vented over Conley’s consolidation of severely intellectually disabled programs and their hopes in securing new leadership that will support their children.
Twenty-one individuals spoke during the public comment section, detailing their personal experiences with the move while making a plea for change.
“The point of this is to show comradery and also to share perspective with the board,” said Michelle Campuzano of MPS Advocates and Parents for SPED.
“Our first step is that we want them to hear these broken parents’ struggles that they’re facing so they can know the reality while looking at new leadership and doing investigations,” she added.
“If new leadership comes in and doesn’t address this problem,” she continued. “It’s going to get even worse before it gets better – and these families can’t afford that.”
The superintendent previously narrowed down the SID programs to two Lowell and Franklin East elementary schools, stating it would provide more stability by allowing students to stay in one place for longer periods of time.
Nikki Werner, who has a daughter in the SID program at Lowell said “their consolidation of the program had a lot of negative impacts.”
“The classrooms were double in size and they didn’t consider the fact that they needed more aids or more help or the size of a classroom that they needed,” Werner said.
Despite the criticism, Executive Director of Special Education Theresa Baca confirmed with the Tribune that Conley’s leave had nothing to do with changes in the special education programs.
“What I can say in talking to our legal counsel is that I’ve been assured the recent changes have nothing to do with special education,” she said. “These were issues that existed in the spring and are long resolved.”
The board also conducted an executive session in which it further discussed the superintendent’s employment and contract, but no updates were provided.
While there is still no clarity in terms of how long Conley’s suspension will last, it appears that the board is planning to let her go.
“The Governing Board appreciates the service of Dr. Conley during her 18-month term as superintendent and wishes her well in future endeavors,” said Hurst in a previous statement.
According to Conley’s original contract, MPS would have to pay the superintendent for the remainder of her three-year contract, which ends in mid-2021. Her base salary was set as $225,000 in 2018.
Conley would also be eligible to receive payouts for any unused sick days up to 240 days at 55 percent of her daily rate and unused vacation days up to 60 days at her full daily rate.