PARK CITY — Ember Conley, who is stepping down as Park City superintendent after this school year, says high turnover on school board is one factor in her decision to leave.
"I think it needs to be noted that the change, of having four governing board presidents in a year has definitely been a challenge. If you do a poll around the state or even the nation, that's a pretty uncommon incident that's happened here in Park City," Conley said.
Most members of the Park City School Board are new to their roles, with the longest in office just two years.
"That learning curve of understanding the responsibilities and roles of a governing board and the superintendent, it's been a big learning curve," Conley said.
The tenure of Park City's superintendents, when compared to other school districts in Utah, has been relatively short, the longest serving six years, she said. Recently, there have three superintendents in six years. Conley began her tenure as superintendent for the district in 2013.
"You look around the state of Utah and we have superintendents that have been career superintendents, 10, 15, 20 years. You look at Steve Norton in Cache (School District)," who has led the 17,000-student district since 1996, she said.
"You look at longevity with student achievement and he has one of the best districts in the state because of his consistent leadership along with a consistent board," Conley said.
School Board President Andrew Caplan, in an interview on KCPW radio, said Conley’s resignation came somewhat as a surprise because the school board had voted unanimously this summer to renew her contract for two years. When Conley accepted the job in 2013, she said she intended to retire from the school district.
In a prepared statement, Caplan thanked Conley for "her exemplary service and commitment to our district and wishes her the best in her future endeavors. We look forward to celebrating her accomplishments with the community this spring.”
Conley informed the school board that she will be available until Jan. 31, 2019, to help the next superintendent transition into the job.
The frequent turnover of the board leadership and newly elected board members posed challenges for balancing the expectations of the community and those in her own life, she said.
“I certainly have a strong work ethic. I’ve always been that person, but some of the expectations are higher than what is reasonable,” she said.
Conley said she has no plans for what comes next but she is proud of many accomplishments during her four years at the helm.
When she started, contract negotiations between the school board and the teacher’s union were at a stalemate and in the hands of a federal mediator.
Conley broke through the logjam and worked to institute a more collaborative, shared governance style that gives all parties a voice.
“That’s been a gigantic accomplishment,” she said.
Conley also guided the school district through one of its greatest trials when two 13-year-old Treasure Mountain Junior High students died in the fall of 2016 after overdosing on a synthetic opioid known as “pink” that had been purchased on the darknet.
She unwittingly became the national voice on the nation's opioid misuse and overdose epidemic, helping to educate other school leaders across the country.
In recent months, the school district has also weathered the leave of absence of Park City High School Principal Bob O'Connor.
Conley said she plans to remain in the community and wants the school district to succeed. She has a child who attends elementary school in the district.
In a letter to students and staff, Conley said her goal upon hiring was to complete her career and retire from the Park City School District.
"As each of us has to weigh and balance our lives with our family and work, I have made the decision to finish this current contract as superintendent. Upon its conclusion in 2019, my hope is that the board is able to hire a superintendent who will continue the good work we have done together and will continue the journey to ensure that all students learn at high levels through the support and love that each of you give on a daily basis," Conley wrote.
To the school district administrative team, Conley wrote that they were “the core reason that I found extreme satisfaction and happiness in my daily work. The work that we have done and will continue is important and worthy work for our students. Most of all, thank you for your love and support each of you have provided to me as we lead this amazing district."
During her tenure at Park City School District, some of Conley’s accomplishments, outlined in the school district statement, include:
• Park City High was named one of the top 500 schools in the nation.
• The district's graduation rate climbed from 89 percent in 2013 to 97 percent in 2017, which is in the top 1 percent of the nation.
• Jeremy Ranch Elementary was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, a first for the school district.