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Arizona attorney general reviewing criminal complaint after Mesa school superintendent's ouster

Former school board member alleges theft and embezzlement in connection with administrators' pay hikes. School board hasn't revealed why it's firing superintendent.


A criminal complaint filed with the Arizona attorney general’s office alleges that Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley committed theft and embezzlement connected to the disbursement of pay raises and bonuses for administrators.

The citizen complaint, obtained by 12 News, was filed by former Mesa School Board President Benjamin Smith. 

The complaint could be the precursor to an inquiry or formal investigation by the AG’s office into the reasons for Conley’s pending firing by the board.

In a statement, the AG’s office said:

“We are aware of spending and budgetary allegations involving Mesa Public Schools personnel and are analyzing specific complaints made to the Attorney General’s office. Additional information will be provided when appropriate.”

The Mesa School Board hasn’t revealed why it is taking steps to oust Conley. The board placed Conley on paid leave one week ago and began the process of terminating her contract. 

A board spokeswoman told reporters last week that there were no criminal matters involved.

Under Conley's three-year contract, Mesa Public Schools might have to pay her more than $500,000 if she's fired. Conley started the Mesa job just 16 months ago.

RELATED: Mesa Public Schools takes steps to fire superintendent

A Conley spokesman provided this response to the complaint: "Under advice of counsel, Ember cannot comment on the unsubstantiated allegation."

Smith’s complaint alleges that raises and bonuses given to top administrators were larger than those approved by the School Board earlier this year:

“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. Additionally, the contracts approved by the Board in March of 2019 were executed with salaries higher than were approved on the contracts. I'm requesting that the AG's office request and review 2018-19 "Positions and Pay" from Visions (the MPS accounting software)... same thing for 2019-20.”

The complaint doesn’t spell out how Conley may have been involved.

A Mesa Public Schools spokeswoman suggested there was nothing unusual about adjusting pay or bonuses:

"Any citizen may submit a complaint for review by the Attorney General. 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.

"Employee contracts include the following language:

"District shall pay Employee as salary for the Contract Year the greater of (i) the salary amount set forth above or (ii) the salary amount determined by District's 2019-20 Compensation Plan adopted by the Board ("Employee's Salary"). If there is a difference between the Salary stated above and the amount computed according to District's Compensation Plan, the Compensation Plan shall govern. On or before July 31, 2019, District shall confirm Employee's Salary in a notice issued to Employee. Any change to Employee's Assigned Position or Contract Year that affects Employee's Salary shall be confirmed in a Revised Contract signed by District and Employee."

The attorney general’s potential involvement raises the stakes for the school board and for Conley.

Two months ago, the AG’s office charged a former Apache Junction superintendent with misuse of funds for improperly awarding bonuses to administrators.

Faced with speculation about the reasons for Conley’s ouster, the district has had to answer questions about budget overruns and perks for Conley’s executive team. 

Residents are also questioning why the district is moving to fire Conley now, less than a month after voters approved a budget increase.

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The district responded to the questions Friday afternoon. You can read the response here.

Mesa Public Schools’ spending and possibly Conley’s firing are expected to come up at the school board’s meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday.