Mesa schools audit details extravagant raises The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mesa schools audit details extravagant raises

Mesa schools audit details extravagant raises
City News

By Paul Maryniak and Christopher Boan
Tribune Staff

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 an audit the Governing Board released last week.

And she 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 went from $2,068,000 in the 2018-19 fiscal year to a current $2,619,555, the audit said.

Those numbers don’t include Conley’s base salary of $225,000 a year.

Conley resigned Dec. 2 from the position she had held since mid-2018 after the board received the audit.

She had been put on administrative leave Nov. 18 when questions arose about the raises. The board commissioned the audit on Oct. 31.

The board had been withholding the audit’s release, stating it needed time to study the report.

“We have been looking at these numbers for several weeks for several hours,” board President Elaine Miner said at the board’s meeting Feb. 11, when the audit was released. “There’s not much else – at least I can speak for myself – that I’ve been doing for the last few weeks.”

The audit found that Conley gave raises ranging from $2,000 to $44,000 to eight of her then 13 team members between January and March last year.

Three raises accounted for more than half the total of unauthorized salary increases.

The largest was a $44,000 pay bump for a deputy superintendent, another for $32,678 to an associated superintendent for “human and capital resources” and a third for $31,600 to the “chief strategy and information officer.

A fourth raise amounted to nearly $13,000 for “executive director-innovative partnerships.”

The audit did not name the individuals who got the raises or what it brought their annual base salary to.

Conley added to her team an executive director for the $300 million in bond projects that voters approved in 2018 and the “innovative partnerships” director – two positions that contributed to the $551,448 total increase in compensation for her 15-member group of top aides between 2018-19 and 2019-20.

That increase was further fueled on March 26 and April 23, when she hired the district general counsel and assistant superintendent for the area covered by Red Mountain and Skyline high schools at salaries of $145,000 and $125,000, respectively, according to the audit.

Those salaries exceeded the amounts the board had set for the positions. The board signed off on them  week.

An executive team member also earns supplemental pay of $22,500 annually and a tax-sheltered annuity payment ranging between $6,000 and $8,000 a year.

Interim Superintendent Peter Lesar said in a letter on the district’s website that he is in the process of recouping about half the $145,000 in unauthorized raises before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

He had noted during the meeting that he is reviewing the executive team’s structure and compensation, stating the review “will not be favorable for some of our leadership team.”

In his letter, Lesar wrote:

“The board takes seriously its responsibility to establish and approve fair and reasonable compensation consistent with duties and previous organizational decisions.”

“This work is not yet complete,” he also wrote. “The board and I will continue to review the organization of the superintendent’s executive leadership team for the 2020-21 school year, including appropriate number of appointed positions, job responsibilities and compensation.”

Lesar also disclosed that the audit was commissioned after a district employee told the board about the raises.

The audit traced the growth of the executive team and its total compensation under Conley and her predecessor, Dr. Michael Cowan, over the last five years.

It noted that compensation for the district’s top echelon of administrators went from a total $1.42 million in 2014-15 for 10 officials to a total $2.62 million for 15 in the current fiscal year.

The staggering increase infuriated Cathy Zinkhon, a Summit Academy preschool inclusion teacher who was the only citizen to speak out at last week’s board meeting.

“The total compensation for the SET increased by almost 85 percent over the past five years,” said Zinkhon. “This is money that is not going into our classrooms. This is not money that is reaching our students.”

Zinkon recalled how she had been told earlier this school year that the district could not afford to give her a second instructional assistant who would cost $350 to $400 a week with no benefits.

“$350 to $400 a week for an instructional assistant in my classroom to help me change diapers for my 3- to 5-year-old children who have disabilities – I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” said Zinkohn, a teacher in the district for 10 years.

Lesar assured Zinkhon that the district prioritizes education at all ages and will continue to dedicate resources to its preschool classrooms.

Miner said the executive salaries don’t mean the district cares any less about its teachers and students.

“This is truly a complex national issue,” she said. “What you have just brought to us is a national issue that all districts are dealing with. Funding is an issue.”

“And you’re right, when you look at those numbers it looks like funding is going to the wrong places when you’re in the classroom and you’re hurting for those things,” she added. “But, from our perspective, where we see where the amounts of money go in a very complex budget, it makes sense that it looks like it does.”

Lesar said Conley slipped the unauthorized raises past the board by having it approve personnel requests for promotions or job transfers that did not include what they would be paid.

At the same time, Conley was sneaking those raises past the board, she had begun working with the board on the campaign for voter approval of a 15 percent budget override. The override passed last November.

Conley presented a timeline for the campaign at the district’s first meeting in January 2019.

As the first few months of last year went by, she was handing out the unauthorized salary increases on one hand and leading board discussions about that campaign’s messaging.

On May 14 – when all the raises and top-staff additions were completed – the board unanimously approved its “pro” statement for the campaign, stating in part:

“Our proven track record of fiscal responsibility has delivered high academic standards; low administrative costs; and extensive student success as evidenced by the local, state and national recognitions our students, staff and schools receive.”

Last week, Miner laid out her vision for rebuilding the community’s trust in the district’s leadership.

Stating “we understand that our partnership between the public and our schools is based upon a trust,” she declared, “the board will approve expenditures and spend funds wisely.”

“The past few months have not been easy, but I’m confident that our district will emerge stronger,” Minder continued. “Our governing board is strengthening our commitment to fiscal responsibility and financial integrity.”

Miner assured the audience that the MPS governing board did not know the full extent of Conley’s actions and that the board would implement safeguards to prevent them from recurring.

“Our community must know that our governing board did not have a full picture of the acts at the outset. That lack of info caused some unfortunate skepticism,” she said, adding:

“It took some time for us to get the facts so we could make the informed and accurate decisions. The board had been repeatedly informed that the 2019-20 SET compensation and reorganization plan would not increase costs to the district.

“Now, after some extensive number crunching, we have verified that that was not the case. We moved swiftly to address these concerns, though our due diligence took more time than some would have liked.” γ

Comments are closed.