While mystery surrounds the sudden removal of Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley from active duty, the district will continue to run “business as usual,” according to the official who will be taking her place – at least temporarily.
At a special meeting early Nov. 18, the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board appointed Deputy Superintendent Andi Fourlis to oversee the district after placing Conley on indefinite, paid administrative leave.
After meeting in executive session with its atto9rney, the board gave no reason for its action, leaving the public and even district employees alike in the dark.
The board said its action was non-disciplinary but gave no indication how long the leave will last.
“The Governing Board appreciates the service of Dr. Conley during her 18-month term as superintendent and wishes her well in future endeavors,” said district spokesperson Heidi Hurst in a statement.
Board President Elaine Miner would only say the board is “working diligently to try and do the right thing.”
Board member Marcie Hutchinson told the East Valley Tribune the board was advised by the district’s legal counsel to refrain from commenting until further notice.
Despite the chaos, Fourlis is now filling in for Conley’s role as superintendent and said the community can expect to see MPS carry on as normal.
“The district is going to continue to move forward,” she said. “Including all of the programs to support our social-emotional learning students and our strategic and master planning work.”
“Some other initiatives include inclusive preschools and developing strong partnerships with our community – both nonprofit and higher education,” she said.
Before coming to Mesa Public Schools, Fourlis was an assistant superintendent at Scottsdale Unified and the chief learning officer for the Arizona Science Center.
Conley, 47, was appointed superintendent early last year, replacing Dr. Michael Cowan, who retired after nine years to accept a call to do missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The first person in her family to graduate from college, Conley launched her teaching career in Cortez, Colorado, where she taught children from the Navajo and the Ute Mountain Ute reservations.
She eventually worked as a deputy superintendent and as a director of assessment and elementary school principal in Maricopa and spent five years as superintendent of the Park City School District.
Prior to being placed on leave, Conley had been criticized by some parents of special-needs students for consolidating severely intellectually disabled programs on two campuses.
The superintendent said she moved the programs to Lowell and Franklin East elementary schools to provide more stability by allowing students to stay in one place for longer periods of time.
But complaints have since surfaced online about parents and kids having longer commuting times and other problems.
Despite the criticism, Executive Director of Special Education Theresa Baca confirmed 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 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.”
If the board does choose to let Conley go, it could cost the district hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars.
According to her 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.
The sudden departure comes at a time when MPS is still celebrating its recent victory in securing a 15 percent budget override earlier this month
Mesa voters approved a $54 million budget override, which is funded by local property taxes, in order to help out with teacher salaries and classroom costs, among other things.
Mesa Education Association President Joshua Buckley, who helped campaign for the budget override, said he was stunned by Conley’s temporary removal and hopes the public gets some answers soon.
“We don’t know exactly what it is,” he said. “I just want what’s best for the people I work with and the students we teach.’’
He added, “The MPS board does not make rash decisions.”