The longer Mesa Public Schools refuses to provide answers to the public surrounding the sudden resignation of former superintendent Ember Conley, the more havoc it wreaks on its employees.
That was former school board president Ben’s Smith’s assessment in the wake of Conley’s resignation last week – and the cloud of mystery surrounding her departure.
The mystery deepened as the board accepted Conley’s resignation – only about 18 months after hiring her – and refused to disclose whether it will be buying out her contract.
Smith, who played a major role in hiring Conley in 2018, told the East Valley Tribune several teachers reached out to him, expressing concern and exasperation over the current turmoil in the top tier of the district.
“It’s impacting morale in a major way,” Smith said. “I’ve had teachers and staff members reach out to me just asking for reassurance the district is OK.”
The mystery has been compounded by Smith’s own criminal complaint to the state Attorney General’s office about the ex-superintendent and Conley’s initial suspension by the board for reasons it won’t disclose.
“There is a huge unknown,” he continued. “I read someone wrote a comment on a social media post about how MPS is like a boat with no captain.”
The governing board abruptly placed Conley on paid non-disciplinary administrative leave Nov. 18, giving no reason for the action or any indication of how long it would last.
“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,” said attorney Robert Haws during a Nov. 26 meeting.
“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.”
A week later, Smith filed a criminal complaint with the AG accusing Conley of theft and embezzlement for giving out 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 said 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.
The Attorney General’s office confirmed it was conducting an investigation, but the district declined comment and Conley could not be reached.
“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,” Smith said. “I want them to go into this taking an unbiased approach.”
Conley steps down
On Dec. 2, Conley officially resigned.
Following a three-hour executive session discussing her employment, the school board voted 4-1 during a special meeting to approve the resignation.
“The district is looking forward to getting accurate information out,” said board President Elaine Miner. “We look forward to moving forward.”
“We care about this district and we believe we are doing what is right,” she continued.
Board member Kiana Sears cast the lone vote against, saying only she disagreed with the “financial provision” of Conley’s departure agreement.
A resignation provision in Conley’s original contract states she could receive only her base salary prorated to the date of termination and forfeit all rights to compensation and benefits after her actual date of termination -- but it is unclear what Sears was referring to.
Conley’s base salary was set as $225,000 in 2018.
If Conley had been fired, MPS would have had to pay the remainder of her three-year contract, which ends in mid-2021.
She would have also been 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.
Although the board is still not disclosing the details surrounding the suspension and resignation, members indicated they will make the terms of the departure agreement with Conley available soon.
How soon is unknown.
The board appointed former Mesa Associate Superintendent Peter Lesar as the interim superintendent for the time being.
Lesar, who worked in the district for 32 years and retired this past summer, said he is looking forward to stepping up to the plate.
“I’m inspired by the dedication and commitment of our leaders, teachers and support staff and look forward to working side-by-side with all of you,” said Lesar.
“I am hopeful my experience, established relationships and familiarity with the district will add stability during this transitional time,” he added.
While Lesar did not respond to the Tribune for a follow-up interview, Smith called him a sound choice.
“I think he is the perfect person to help ride that ship,” he said. “He’s got a very calming demeanor and I have a lot of respect for him.”
Adding to the mystery surrounding Conley’s departure is the uncertain future of her major strategic and master plans.
Deputy Superintendent Andi Fourlis previously told the Tribune MPS will continue to operate “business as usual.”
She said before Conley’s resignation no changes will be made to her initiatives.
“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.
Next steps are expensive
The hunt for a new superintendent now begins.
The process, according to Smith, could potentially be costly to the district as well as time-consuming.
“The process is pretty long and very detailed,” said Smith. “If they decide to go the same route we went through last time, it’s about a four-month process.”
If MPS chooses a national search, it could face several obstacles relating to competitive salaries.
Superintendent pay is linked to state per-pupil funding, and Arizona ranks poorly in this area compared to other destinations.
A 2016 survey of school districts in suburban Phoenix found superintendent compensation averaged $233,177, assuming they received 100 percent of performance pay.
When hiring Conley, MPS went through the Arizona School Boards Association.
It spent about $45,000 – which Smith categorized as “more fiscally conservative” in comparison to other groups.
In total, the former board president estimates the total amount spent on the hiring process cost around $100,000 when taking into account the additional staff it needed to pay over-time.
Looking forward though, Smith said he does feel optimistic the board will have a permanent superintendent by the beginning of the next school year.
“I don’t picture a scenario where they are still running an interim at the start of the 2020-21 school year,” he said.