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Internal review raised concerns about Mesa Public Schools' compensation approval process

Posted at 9:18 PM, Nov 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-25 23:18:58-05

Arizona's Attorney General is now looking into more than one complaint involving Mesa Public Schools. ABC15 was first to report that several administrative raises and bonuses may have been given without the governing board's approval, which violates state law.

It's the latest development in a series of events that started on November 18, when the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board voted unanimously to put Superintendent Dr. Ember Conley on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave.< /span> Members still have not said why.

The next day, documents obtained by reporters found the district was more than $750,000 over budget on administrative costs and that board members approved $400,000 in bonuses for the superintendent's executive team. Then on Friday, November 22, a criminal complaint was filed with the Arizona Attorney General's Office, accusing Dr. Conley of theft and embezzlement.

Turns out, the issue of how the governing board approves compensation has been on the district's radar for months.

At least one of the criminal complaints filed with the Attorney General's office claims Dr. Conley may have broken state law by giving pay raises and executing contracts without the board's approval. Now, reporters have learned Mesa Public Schools has been taking a closer look at how, and if the district follows that same law, since June.

A.R.S. 15-502, for every school district governing board in the state it basically means, "They can't delegate that authority of setting salaries or employee personnel to someone else," said Christopher Thomas, general counsel and associate executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. "It's ultimately the board who decides who gets paid and who gets hired."

That same statute was also the focus of a presentation given during the Mesa School Board's November 12 meeting.

"This is something that I had begun looking at roughly about the month of June," Associate Superintendent of Human and Capital Resources Dr. Shaun Holmes told the board. "The fundamental question has become, the process that we follow in Mesa, does that meet the standard of 15-502, that the board approves compensation."

The internal review raised some concerns.

"Depending on which aspect of compensation we're talking about, [the answer] ranged from, 'I'm not sure,' to 'I don't think so,' and those two answers are very clear indicators that we need to do something a little bit different," Holmes said.

Districts across the state have been reviewing their approval processes in recent months after former Apache Junction Superintendent Chad Wilson was indicted for theft and misusing more than $130,000. Wilson is accused of handing out paydays to administrators without the school board's approval. He was serving as superintendent of Mesa's East Valley Institute of Technology when these charges came to light. Wilson is currently the school's director of external affairs.

"I think that school districts are trying to do things the right way," said Thomas. "I think that it's just a question of interpretation and making an adjustment."

A spokesperson for Mesa Public Schools provided more details about the internal review, saying a leadership restructure over the summer "lead the district to review the process of board approval of personnel placements. His research included consulting with other districts. When the Sept. 2019 Auditor General report on the Apache Junction Unified School District was released, Mesa expanded its review of the board approval process to include all compensation."

The district also acknowledged there were instances they "could not verify board approval for certain types of compensation, primarily sub-duty pay for teachers, professional development pay for teachers, and similar types of pay." We're told, "An internal process was modified to ensure all compensation is board approved and was implemented on November 12, 2019. An internal audit will verify the approval process and ensure ongoing compliance."

Finally, Mesa Public Schools saying Dr. Holmes’ Nov. 12 presentation was not connected to the June approval of salary increases or additional compensation packages, which are mentioned in at least one of the criminal complaints filed with the attorney general's office.

Meantime the governing board is set to meet Tuesday night. Members are expected to discuss budget spending in a study session before their regular meeting. They are also scheduled to discuss Dr. Conley's contract and related negotiations in executive session.