Conley takes to YouTube in her defense The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Conley takes to YouTube in her defense

Conley takes to YouTube in her defense
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By Christopher Boan
Tribune Staff Writer

Former Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley spoke for the first time since her resignation in December in a YouTube video, defending her record and calmly insisting she did nothing wrong.

Conley also defended the district in general during her 14-minute video, touting positives of her 18-month tenure such as student gains in third grade reading and an improved high school graduation rate.

Conley did not directly address the district’s audit that found she had given $145,000 in unapproved raises to members of her Superintendent Executive Team directly, though she broached the subject on several occasions and said she kept Governing Board members in the loop.

“In those first few months, three members of the superintendent staff announced their retirement,” Conley said. “Rather than simply fill these positions, I worked with the board to restructure district leadership and presented the initial plan to the board at a meeting in November of 2018.

“With a commitment to keep the changes to the maintenance and operations budget neutral, the board acknowledged the new senior team.”

Conley defended her expansion of the team, citing a lack of salary structure for administrative officials in the district.

“In putting together the team, I discovered another established practice that required attention. There was no salary schedule for the most senior administrators,” Conley said. “And in order to attract the best people, an annual bonus structure had been adopted years prior.

“I worked with team members from HR to fill 93 percent of all positions internally, and while total compensation for the new, expanded team was higher than in the past, by reducing the number of administrative support staff and relying on grant money, we kept the changes to the operations and maintenance budget neutral.”

An audit by Mesa Public Schools found that former Superintendent Ember Conley gave out $145,000 in unapproved raises – including one for $44,000 – at a time when she was laying the groundwork for the district’s budget override campaign early last year.

Conley also filled two top-level job vacancies with salaries that exceeded the maximum pay set by the board, according to the audit, and raised the number of the Superintendent’s Executive Team members to 15.

Between the two additional members and authorized and unauthorized raises, the executive team’s total compensation swelled to $2,619,555 – not including Conley’s base salary of $225,000 a year, the audit said.

In her video, Conley asserted that all pay increases were approved by the governing board, either at formal meetings or in the district office.

“Following another long-standing practice, the bonus structure of the team was approved in formal meetings and the cabinets budgets were communicated with some members during meetings in the district office, which is a common practice,” she said.

She also pointed out, “The new team quickly adopted these goals I was hired to achieve, and every key performance indicator increased, some reaching five-year highs.”

Conley spent much of the video touting the improvements made by Mesa Public Schools during her two-year tenure, such as increasing high school graduation rates from 76 to 82 percent as well as reducing the number of F-rated schools in the district from eight to two.

“The team looked beyond student performance and focused on student social and emotional needs, all while keeping a keen eye on the bottom line,” Conley said.

Conley cited winning the Personal Achievement Award from the Arizona Medical Association as proof that her work with the district was on-track.

She also cited the leadership team’s ability to save the district $1.2 million annually by adjusting school start times and creating newer, more efficient bus routes as proof that her style of leadership was successful.

“One example is updated transportation routes, in accordance with the American Pediatric Association recommendation leading to later start times for teenagers to assist mental well-being,” she said. “We were able to adjust start times and with the new bus routes, we were able to save the district 1.2 million annually.”

She noted that the district hired 35 elementary school counselors “to improve student social, emotional wellness.”

Conley concluded her video statement by comparing the district’s day-to-day operations to those of large businesses that constantly create and update practices while following all state and federal laws.

She went into greater detail about the factors that led her to resign on Dec. 2 after the board put her on non-disciplinary, paid leave Nov. 18.

“In my resignation letter, I spoke of personal challenges, including the passing of my father and a close friend, my role as the primary caregiver and decision-maker for my mother, coupled with an unexpected illness and surgery,” she said.

“These difficulties, coupled with the demands of the superintendent job, are ultimately what led to my resignation. There is no mystery or wrongdoing.”

Conley said she expresses no ill will toward the Governing Board, citing the difficult job it has.

“The members of the board are good, kind individuals following a system that requires sophisticated board knowledge and governance,” she said. “In times of immense changes in education, it is understandable that these situations cause hardship to all involved.

“It is critical that the community continues to support the hard-working administrators, the board and the front-line professionals that are tasked with the education of our students,” she continued.

“To do otherwise would be a disservice to the community and the hard work of all the dedicated people that have chosen to give their lives to a district that is a beacon of excellence; that cultivates our most precious resource, our students.”

Mesa Public Schools had little reaction to Conley’s video.

“The Governing Board appreciates the service of Dr. Conley during her term as superintendent and wishes her well in future endeavors,” it said in a statement.

Conley vouched for the work that her team conducted during her time with Mesa Public Schools, touching on what their work meant to the community as a whole.

“The senior team we assembled should be celebrated for all of the improvement in student achievement, social and emotional wellbeing, and fiscal responsibility,” she said. “The hard-working professional and career educators who were focused and dedicated to our students should be celebrated.

“These professionals choose to work as educators, not to enrich themselves, but to make a difference in our community.”

Conley concluded with a vow to continue her quest to help children of all ages, and said she would be making more videos and posting them to emberconley.com, which as of late last week did not appear to be activated yet.

“I’m going to continue to be a champion for children,” Conley said. “I’m a change agent, and as I’ve continued through this journey, I’ve researched and I’m going to continue to research how to make our communities better through public education.”

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