June 27, 2016

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Medina school board members: We didn’t know how much

Members of the Medina school board acknowledged Friday they didn’t know how big a bill Superintendent Randy Stepp had run up to pay for his education.

In an email response signed by all four school board members to questions posed by The Gazette on Sunday, they said they knew the district was helping to pay for Stepp’s education but admitted they didn’t know the exact amount totaled more than a quarter-million dollars.

“The Board of Education was aware that Dr. Stepp was receiving tuition reimbursement,” the statement said. “The Board was not aware of the extent of the reimbursement or that it applied to all degrees.”

Since 2010, taxpayers have paid more than $265,000 for courses Stepp took at Case Western University, where he earned a master’s in business administration, and nearly $172,000 to pay off his three student loans held by the U.S. Department of Education.

Stepp has three degrees from Ashland University: a doctorate and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education.

All of the payouts were made through the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center, which provides services to seven Medina County school districts.

The money for the educational payments came from a “carryover fund” the educational service center maintains for each school district.

Stepp personally directed the center’s treasurer to cut the checks.

The board members said they didn’t know the specifics of the payments.

“The past procedure for reimbursement was such that the Board was not informed of the payments/contracts between the Board and the Medina County Educational Service Center (ESC),” the board members said in their email response.

Board members promised to change that policy.

“The district treasurer has already begun to work with the Educational Service Center to put procedures in place that will provide more oversight,” the board said in their statement.

The board has been under pressure to respond to questions surrounding the payments since a March 8 public forum, attended by more than 400 parents, students, teachers and other residents.

The public outcry came in reaction to Stepp’s new contract, which provided an $83,000 bonus designed to keep him from accepting another job.

The board approved the contract Jan. 7 but didn’t issue a news release until March 1, after rumors of the bonus were circulating.

At the forum, Stepp agreed to pay back the $83,000 bonus in installments.

But questions remain about why board members approved paying for Stepp’s education and how those payments were made.

In their statement, the board said it did not ask for an itemization of Stepp’s college expenditures until March 15 — more than a year after the last payment was made.

Board members said they still don’t know the details of Stepp’s three federal loans.

“At the Board’s request on March 15, 2013, Dr. Stepp provided the board with a summary of his U.S. Department of Education loan history, not an itemization of his college costs,” the board said in the statement.

John Leatherman, president of the Medina City Teachers Association, said the response from the board is “too little, too late.”

“I guess it’s a start,” said the president of the union, which represents the district’s more than 400 teachers. “They’ve come clean by admitting they didn’t know about the non-transparent spending spree that was going on with the ESC spending account.”

Leatherman said he was surprised and disappointed board members didn’t learn the full extent of the payments until March 6 — two days after the union made a public records request for the documents.

“I’m just puzzled as to how they didn’t know,” he said.

The board promised to make reforms aimed at providing more accountability.

“We can certainly have better accounting of numbers going in and out of the ESC,” board member Susan Vlcek said in an interview on Friday.

The issue will be discussed at the board’s next regular meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Medina High School Distance Learning Laboratory.

The board members ended their written statement with a pledge to do better.

“Going forward, the board is committed to regaining community trust and increasing the transparency of our activities,” the statement said.

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

Loren Genson About Loren Genson

Loren Genson was The Gazette's senior reporter. From August 2012 through September 2015, she covered Brunswick city and state and national government. To contact The Gazette, call the managing editor at (330) 721-4065.