Hales, a highly respected leader, made the sudden decision to leave immediately after state office staffers, including Superintendent Martell Menlove, were ordered out of an audit committee meeting of the state school board while panel members discussed a particular issue.
That snub was the culmination of months of insults and harassment toward staffers by certain board members, sources say.
Even Menlove, who already has announced he will retire later this year, began boxing up his personal effects as if he were preparing to quit as well.
He reconsidered and instead will step down in coming months. Hales was seen with tears in her eyes as she left the office Thursday night.
The problem, sources say, is a dysfunctional state board dominated by five or six determined members of the 15-strong panel who often huddle privately and call themselves the "Rat Pack."
Those board members have been trying to micromanage the state office and often are rude and disrespectful to staffers, say the sources, who insist on anonymity for fear of reprisals in what has become an atmosphere of intimidation.
In fact, more than half a dozen key staffers have left the office in the past year. Besides Hales and the forthcoming departure of Menlove, they include the adult education director, the Title 1 director, the curriculum director, the accreditation director, an assistant attorney general assigned to advise the office and that person's replacement, who lasted a month.
In addition, former Superintendent Larry Shumway, sources say, had told the staff he intended to stay in the job for five years. He left after three. Menlove, who replaced him, had originally vowed to stay for five years, but he announced his pending retirement after 18 months.
Many of the board members whom staff see as the problem were elected after the Legislature changed the process by which school board candidates appear on the ballot.
The system employs a 12-member nominating committee, which pares the number of applicants in each district to three. Those names are sent to the governor, who picks two to appear on the ballot.
The law is specific in the makeup of the selection committee. It calls for six from the business community and six from education community (charter schools, higher education, local school boards, parents, school administrators and teachers).
Some members of the business faction are lobbyists and have close associations with legislators.
Because one of the education categories is charter schools, that member is not necessarily in sync with the other education members.
Skeptics have said the current system emerged after voters spanked the Legislature in 2007, repealing a law that allowed parents sending their children to private schools to get tax credits in the form of vouchers.
The school board at the time opposed the voucher law. Critics say the Legislature has been punishing those board members ever since.
Since the current system has been in place, the selection committee has rejected six incumbent school board members, depriving voters of the opportunity to re-elect those officeholders.
The school board's current chairman, David Crandall, also heads a charter school board. He recently pulled from the school board agenda a proposal that would have strengthened the monitoring of charter schools.