State attorney general asked to investigate Mesa Public Schools finances a week after superintendent placed on leave

Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley. (Courtesy Mesa Public Schools)
Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley. (Courtesy Mesa Public Schools)

Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley. (Courtesy Mesa Public Schools)

A former Mesa Public Schools board member on Nov. 22 filed a complaint with the attorney general's office against Ember Conley, the district's superintendent who was placed on nondisciplinary administrative leave Nov. 18.

Ben Smith, who filed the complaint outlining alleged theft/embezzlement, provided a copy to Community Impact Newspaper Nov. 25. Smith states in the complaint that raises approved by the governing board in June 2019 were higher than the amount the board had approved.

"An internal and anonymous source shared that the raises, intended to be $5,000, approved by the Board in June of 2019, were in fact drastically higher than approved," Smith wrote in the complaint. "Additionally, the contracts approved by the Board in March of 2019 were executed with salaries higher than were approved on the contracts."

A spokesperson from the attorney general's office said they were aware of the allegations involving MPS and "are reviewing specific complaints made to our office."

On Nov. 24, MPS released a statement on its website noting that any citizen can submit a complaint for review to the attorney general's office.

Heidi Hurst, a spokesperson with the district, said the district posted an online statement Nov. 22 to clarify information reported by local media outlets.

The Nov. 22 MPS statement to the public attempted to clarify the district's policies for additional compensation for administrators, general administration spending and the timing of events.

"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," read the statement. "Additional compensation for some district-level leadership has been a long-standing practice in Arizona school districts. In Mesa Public Schools, the Governing Board approved annual additional compensation for the 15 members of the Superintendent’s Executive Team on June 11, 2019. This annual additional compensation was also approved by the Board on June 26, 2018 and July 11, 2017. The practice of providing this additional compensation goes back more than a decade."

In addition, district officials said in the statement the district exceeded its budgeted general administration costs in the 2018-19 school year.

"The primary reason for this increase was a prepayment of $719,987 for liability insurance for the 2019-20 school year," according to the district statement, "According to the Uniform System of Financial Records, or USFR, districts can prepay certain expenses such as health or liability insurance premiums if they have the funds available. This provides flexibility in future years should a budget adjustment be needed. The funds used for the prepayment were identified during the year-end budget reconciliation and were included in the final expenses reported in the Annual Financial Report (AFR) approved by the Governing Board on Oct. 14, 2019."

Smith, who served on the school board from 2014 to 2018 and lost his bid for reelection in 2018, said he felt filing the complaint was "the right thing to do."

"I think it is definitely an innocent until proven guilty thing," Smith said. "It's not something I take lightly."

The MPS governing board met Nov. 26 and in a study session prior to the board's regular meeting where an assistant superintendent went over in detail the district's finances. The board also met in an executive session, closed to the public, to discuss the superintendent's contract and did not provide any additional information.