October 30, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
44°F

Medina BOE leaves packed meeting without addressing questions

MEDINA — More than 150 parents, teachers and students showed up at Medina High School on Wednesday night for a special meeting of the Medina Board of Education.

Many said they had questions about the new contract for Superintendent Randy Stepp, approved by the board in January.

Medina High School students protest before a special school board meeting Wednesday evening. Meeting attendees were outraged about a new contract for Superintendent Randy Stepp that included an $83,000 signing bonus. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY KIERA MANION-FISCHER)

The contract provides at least $186,000 in wages, bonus, allowance and other fringe benefits, along with a signing bonus of $83,000.

But instead of answers, they were given index cards and asked to submit questions in writing that would be addressed on the board’s website and discussed at a public forum on Friday.

The board then adjourned to a closed, executive session to discuss contract negotiations that lasted more than three hours.

They never returned to the high school auditorium. A janitor told a handful of reporters and residents who remained in the auditorium that the board had left.
The board’s failure to return may have violated Ohio’s Sunshine Law.

According to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s handbook on open meetings in Ohio, “a public body may only hold an executive session at a regular or special meeting, and a meeting that includes an executive session must always begin and end in an open session.”

When asked about the failure to return to an open session, board President Charles Freeman apologized.

“You’re probably right and I’m sorry,” he said when reached by phone Wednesday night. “We had a productive meeting and we put a lot on the table and you will have a press release in the morning.”

The board said Friday’s public forum would be 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Medina Performing Arts Center, next to the high school.

Several parents and students said they were furious at the delay.

“I canceled meetings with my clients to be here,” shouted one parent.

Another woman, Linda Duke, aired her grievances out loud as the board exited the stage.

“I make $25,000 a year, I voted for the levies, I make sacrifices. Where’s your sacrifice?” she asked.

In an interview following the meeting, Duke said she is the sole wage-earner for her family and must come up with extra money to allow her son to participate in football and wrestling through the school’s “pay-to-play” athletics program.

She said she can’t support the May levy.

“I don’t know how a levy is ever going to pass again,” she said.

Duke’s son, James, 18, a senior at Medina High, said he voted for the last levy, but was waiting to see how the board reacts to the controversy over Stepp’s contract before voting for the next one.

“I wish they would have at least given us a statement,” he said. “We’ll still hear what they have to say on Friday. At the end of the day, it’s not about the board of education. It’s about the students.”

The school board has discussed shortening the school day if the levy fails in May. That threat resonated with students who already have felt the cuts to extracurricular and course offerings.

In a peaceful demonstration outside, students held signs that said “Save our schools” and “We love our teachers.” Their signs were not permitted in the building.

Medina senior Matt Brubaker, 17, said his mother supported his sign protest.

“My little brother is going to be a freshman next year,” he said. “I want him to have the same education I had.”

Laura Nielsen, who has seven students in the district ranging from a kindergartner to a senior at Medina High, said she’s already felt the impact of cuts.

“The experience my senior got is significantly better than what my little ones are getting,” Nielsen said. “I’m not happy with the way things have been done lately but I’ve always voted for the levy.”

Nielsen said the school board missed an opportunity to open a dialogue with parents.

“If they wanted to calm the flames, they didn’t. They threw gasoline on the fire,” she said.

Parents said they were willing to fill out index cards to ask their questions.

One parent, Emily Varner, 33, of Medina, said she asked whether it is possible for Stepp’s contract to be rescinded.

“This is a pretty dramatic example of failed leadership and the ability to lead by example,” she said.

Kara Hohn, a mother of two students, said she hoped to see an answer on the school’s website within 24 hours, as the school board promised.

“I’m just wondering why he thinks he deserves an $83,000 signing bonus … and all the teachers have taken a pay freeze,” Hohn said.

Teachers, who have been without a contract since June 2012, were disappointed that the board put off public debate Wednesday.

Scott Quade, an Advanced Placement English teacher said he was concerned voters would take their disappointment in the school board out on students.

“I think the board’s recent actions regarding (Stepp’s) contract will be the end of the levy,” Quade said. “I would beg the community to not let that decision negatively impact students.”

Quade also bemoaned cuts to the school curriculum. He said his daughter’s school in another district has a choice of five languages in seventh grade.

“We used to have five languages, now we have two,” he said.

Quade said he worries another failed levy would mean more teacher layoffs and cuts to courses.

“If we don’t pass the levy, the board won’t feel it, the superintendent won’t feel it, our students will feel it,” Quade said.

Reporters Nick Glunt and Kiera Manion-Fischer contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.