July 31, 2014

Medina
Mostly clear
66°F

Newspaper shoulders some blame for missing Randy Stepp

On Friday evening, before a packed house at the Medina Performing Art Center, Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp apologized.

Now it’s my turn.

David Knox

Stepp made his mea culpa to an angry crowd of 400 parents and students demanding an explanation for his new contact, which included an $83,000 bonus in addition to annual compensation totaling $186,000 in salary, allowances and other fringe benefits.

Stepp told the crowd he had “screwed up” and said he would give back the bonus and forgo merit raises worth up to $36,000.

While some parents accepted Stepp’s act of contrition as sincere, others aren’t as forgiving toward the school board that approved such a lucrative contract.

If that anger is redirected to the voting booths, the board can kiss goodbye any chance of passing the 5.9-mill levy on the May ballot.

The board may not have to wait that long to feel the wrath of the district’s 400 teachers, who have worked without a contract since June. On Wednesday, they’re voting on a tentative contract agreement — reached before the explosion over Stepp’s contract — that provides no raises except step increases, a bigger class load and hikes in heath insurance costs.

It’s hard to imagine the furor coming at a worse time.

That’s where The Gazette has to take some blame: We failed in our role as a watchdog on government.

The story broke across the top of the front page exactly a week ago: “Stepp’s pact stuns union — School board OKs package that includes $83,000 signing bonus.”

But that story might not have been published at all if we had reported the board was considering giving Stepp a new contract on Jan. 7.

That’s the way it is supposed to work. By law, the school board has to provide at least a 24-hour notice of its meetings.

Stepp’s contract was there on the agenda that accompanied the announcement: “It is recommended that the Board of Education approve the amendment to the Superintendent’s administrative contract, as submitted.”

So why did we miss it?

There are mitigating factors.

Certainly school officials bear some responsibility. They did everything they could to fly under our radar.

Describing Stepp’s contract as an “amendment” was at best misleading. It was a new five-year pact that superseded all but the one provision of his existing agreement that would have drawn attention — his base pay.

Furthermore, no one was expecting a new contract. Stepp’s old one still had a year and a half to run.

The contract also wasn’t approved at a regular meeting, which routinely would be attended by a reporter. Instead it was passed unanimously following a closed “executive session” during a work session.

But all that doesn’t excuse our failure.

We’re paid to be skeptical and suspicious. Any change in the contract of a superintendent should have set off alarm bells in a newsroom.

I went back to the Jan. 7 edition of The Gazette to see what we had that day.

What I saw was sad and ironic. A headline on the front page read, “Medina Schools seek public input.”

The story was about a meeting called “to ask the public for advice before deciding whether to put a levy on the May 7 ballot.”

If only the story had reported the board was considering that night giving Stepp a new contract, I think a lot of pain and suffering would have been avoided.

I am so sorry it didn’t.

All I can say is that we will try to do better.

David Knox is the managing editor of The Gazette. He can be reached at (330) 721-4065 or dknox@medina-gazette.com.