September 16, 2014

Medina
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Pact piles on perks for Stepp

Read Superintendent Randy Stepp’s unsigned, undated contract given to teachers union
Read Stepp’s revised contract signed in 2009 adding longevity incentive (Item 23)
Read Stepp’s revised contract signed in 2011 adding payment of past college loans and altering longevity incentive (Items 6 & 23)

Loren Genson and David Knox
MEDINA — Taxpayers paid thousands more for Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp’s education than his contract originally called for, according to a review of public records by The Gazette.

Randy Stepp

While a clause in Stepp’s Feb. 16, 2009, contract provided reimbursement for college courses he might take “for the purpose of expanding his professional knowledge and skill,” it wasn’t until November 2011 — nearly three years later — that the pact was modified to cover Stepp’s “past academic degrees.”

Two months after the contract was amended, Stepp took advantage of the new benefit.

On Jan. 9, 2012, he directed the Medina County Schools Educational Service Center to cut a check for $172,011.40 to the U.S. Department of Education to pay off his college loans.

Stepp earned three degrees at Ashland University: a bachelor’s in science education in 1993, a master’s in education in 1998, and a doctorate in education in 2010, according to his personnel records.

Only the doctorate involved courses Stepp took at Ashland after he became superintendent in 2006.

The loan payoffs represented about three-quarters of the total $244,037 the school board has paid for Stepp’s college degrees. The remaining $72,026 went for courses at Case Western Reserve University he took while serving as superintendent. He completed his master’s in business administration at Case in 2011.

The district’s payment of nearly a quarter-million dollars for Stepp’s education became an issue last week in the growing controversy over his new contract that included an $83,000 signing bonus.

At a public forum March 8 — in response to heated questions from the audience of about 400 parents, students and residents — Stepp said he would pay back the bonus out of his paycheck.

At the forum, school board member Bill Grenfell said he approved giving Stepp the bonus to ensure he stayed in Medina.

Stepp has said he had other job offers.

“I did it to protect our investment in Dr. Stepp,” Grenfell said.

Questions remain as to how and why that investment was made.

Contract amended

The board amended the 2009 contract during a work session Nov. 7, 2011.

The changes were approved by Charles Freeman, Bob Grenfell, Susan Vlcek, who served as chairwoman in 2011, and former member Mark Dolan. Then-board member Robert Wilder was absent from the session.

Why did the school board agree to pay for Stepp’s college debt?

Grenfell declined to answer, referring the question to Freeman, who now serves as board president.

Freeman said he “honestly can’t remember” the details of the 2011 changes in the contract.

Vlcek also declined to explain the reason behind the board’s decision.

“You’ve got the language” of the contract, she said. “We’ve really talked this to death. I hope we’ve given you good information. We’re really trying to move on.”

The public record is silent on the issue of how the decision was made: Ohio law does not require minutes to be kept at executive sessions, which are closed to the public, and where Stepp’s contract was negotiated. The minutes of the Nov. 7, 2011, work session only show the vote.

When asked whether the board knew how big the bill would be for Stepp’s college debt, Vlcek did not answer directly, responding: “We did invest in the education of our superintendent of our staff.”

Asked whether he told the board the specifics of the payments for his education, Stepp also declined to give a direct answer.

“It’s in my contract,” he said. “It’s a board-approved contract.”

The board did not play a direct role in paying off Stepp’s debt. A review of board meeting minutes fails to show any authorization of specific payments.

Check written

It was Stepp himself who directed the treasurer of the county Educational Service Center to write the checks.

The center pools funds from all seven school districts serving the county to finance programs providing services common to all the schools, such as bus driver training.

Service Center Treasurer Michelle McNeely said the money to pay Stepp’s college debt and courses at Case Western Reserve came from an account maintained for each school district containing overpayments for programs.

McNeely said some districts apply the money in the accounts to other invoices from the educational center. But the money also can be directed to pay other bills.

“They will send us information saying, ‘we have an expenditure,’ “ McNeely said. “We create a purchase order and we receive an OK from them and we go ahead and make the payment.”

Stepp first directed McNeely to write a check to Case Western Reserve University on May 13, 2010.

“With the support of the board and per expectations of me as are outlined in my contract, I am going to be taking business level course work at Case,” he wrote in an email to McNeely. “I will need a check for $75 to apply and then, if accepted, a check for a $750 deposit.”

Four more payments to Case Western were directed by Stepp totaling $72,026 for his MBA degree.

In directing McNeely to cut a $172,011.40 check for his college debt in 2012, the only documentation Stepp provided was a computer “screenshot” of the federal student aid website listing the “payoff amount” for three loans: $57,145, $105,842 and $9,023.

The screenshot does not indicate any details for what courses or degrees the loans were incurred.

Stepp said he didn’t provide a breakdown for the loans because it was not required.

“It’s negotiated as part of my contract,” he reiterated about the payoff amount.

Nor is there a record of the school board asking Stepp for an itemization of his educational or living expenses the loans paid for.

Second thoughts on levy

At a special meeting Friday night, the board discussed whether to withdraw a 5.9-mill levy on the May ballot in the wake of the public reaction to the controversy about Stepp’s contract.

Andrew Shea, the board’s non-voting student representative, said the levy has lost the support of many voters who consider the board to be guilty of “mismanagement of funds.”

Shea pointed out that the teachers have agreed to concessions and students have seen cuts in their programs in recent years.

He said the superintendent’s failure to have “taken any concessions appears to be — maybe mismanagement of money isn’t the best way to put it — wrong principally.”

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.
Contact David Knox at (330) 721-4065 or dknox@medina-gazette.com.