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New spending audit shows Mesa schools superintendent's staff salaries nearly doubling

Posted: 8:18 AM, Feb 12, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-12 21:24:05-05
Dr. Ember Conley

MESA, AZ — An audit detailing unapproved raises within the Mesa School District came out Tuesday.

The Mesa Public Schools Governing Board voted to place Superintendent Dr. Ember Conley on paid administrative leave last November following concerns within the district.

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.

The district assigned Dr. Conley to paid administrative leave on November 18 and initiated an internal audit.

Here are some of the highlights of the audit released Tuesday:

  • There were more than $140,000 in unapproved raises for eight different members of the superintendent’s staff, along with two contracts which were never approved by the board, totaling $270,000.
  • In 2015, there were 10 positions, spending $1.4 million. By 2020, there were 15 positions totaling more than $2.6 million. The superintendent’s staff has grown by 50 percent in the last five years, and the total cost of staff salaries has nearly doubled.

Here's a breakdown from the audit report, listing the number of staff members per year, total compensation and increases from years prior.

READ THE FULL AUDIT HERE.

A message about the report was posted on the Mesa website by Interim Superintendent Pete Lesar Wednesday morning, addressing what's to come after the findings.

"Currently in progress is a recoupment plan for any compensation difference between what is being paid and what is now approved. This includes recommended adjustments to current SET compensation, leading to a recoupment of approximately $70,000 this fiscal year," Lesar's statement says. "This work is not yet complete. 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."

"The Governing Board did not have a full picture of the facts at the outset. In many cases, pertinent details were not disclosed that would have allowed the board to make informed decisions. According to the board, the former superintendent informed them that the 2019-20 SET compensation and reorganization plan would not increase costs to the district. We have verified through the audit that this was not the case," said Lesar.

The district, however, did not answer our questions regarding if any legal action would be taken.

Meantime, the Attorney General's Office says it is still looking into the criminal complaints it received regarding unapproved compensation.

Concerns were also previously raised in a criminal complaint filed with the Attorney General's office by Ben Smith, the former Mesa Public Schools Governing Board president. The complaint accuses Conley of theft and embezzlement, citing administrative raises and contracts that were drastically higher than what the board previously approved.

Conley told ABC15 she welcomed any investigation and says board members are fully aware of everything she did as superintendent.