April 16, 2014

Intermittent clouds

Survey: Paying school administrator’s college debt unheard of

David Knox and Nick Glunt

A survey of Ohio’s 33 largest school districts failed to find an administrator’s contract with the most controversial fringe benefit awarded Medina Superintendent Randy Stepp — elimination of his old college debt at taxpayers’ expense.

Stepp’s three federal student loans, totaling nearly $172,000, were repaid in full in January 2012 — two months after the school board amended his 2009 contract and agreed “to pay the costs associated with the Superintendent’s acquisition of past academic degrees.”

The payoff of his student loans and other educational costs by the district — totaling more than a quarter-million dollars in the past three years — are the focus of a continuing controversy over how Stepp was able to get the board to agree to such generous benefits.

The public furor prompted board President Charles Freeman to resign earlier this week and dimmed hopes of passage of a 5.9-mill levy on the May ballot.

Of 24 school districts that responded to The Gazette’s survey, none had contracts providing for payment of student loans or reimbursement for tuition or other educational costs run up by superintendents before they were hired.

Stepp received two of his three degrees from Ashland University — a bachelor’s in education in 1993 and a master’s in 1998 — before becoming superintendent in 2006.

He received his doctorate in 2010.

Many officials voiced surprise that a school board would agree to pay for past degrees.

“I have never heard of a retroactive reimbursement,” said Steve Maag, treasurer of Beavercreek City Schools southeast of Dayton.

Beavercreek, with an enrollment of about 7,500, was the state’s 27th largest district in the 2011-12 school year.

Medina, with 7,066 students, ranked 34th in enrollment among Ohio’s more than 600 school districts.

Treasurer Penny Rucker of Columbus Schools — the state’s biggest system with nearly 50,000 students — also knew of no other district in Ohio that covered the cost of old degrees.

Rucker added that she hoped that fringe benefit would not catch on.

“Where do you draw the line?” she said. “I’d hate to see the industry adopt that practice as a whole.”

Stepp’s contract may be unique in the state.

Rob Delane, deputy executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association, could not cite a similar provision in a superintendent’s contract.

“I could not point to any other district that would have that — not that it doesn’t exist,” he said. “I’m just not aware of any.”

Theodore Kowalski, a professor at the University of Dayton and a national expert in educational administration, said he did not know of any superintendent anywhere whose college loans were paid off.

“I’ve done a lot of research on superintendents, and I’ve never come across this,” Kowalski said.

But Kowalski and school officials who responded to the survey said it was fairly common for school boards to pay for additional education of their superintendents.

Stepp’s contract also provide for that: Stepp earned an executive master’s in business administration from Case Western Reserve University at a cost to the district of nearly $94,000.

The payments for Stepp’s education have continued to fuel public protests that began nearly a month ago, when rumors began circulating that the board had approved a new contract for Stepp that included an $83,000 signing bonus aimed at discouraging him from taking another job.

Stepp has apologized for including the bonus in the contract, which the board approved at a Jan. 7 work session without publicity. He also has agreed to give back the bonus in biweekly installments through the end of the contract, in 2019, and to forgo $36,000 in merit raises.

But Stepp has rejected criticism of the payments for his education despite last week’s acknowledgement by board members that they “were not aware of the extent of the reimbursement or that it applied to all degrees.”

Nor did they know that the loans were paid off because the Jan. 9, 2012, check to the U.S. Department of Education was cut by the treasurer of the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center and not the Medina Schools treasurer.

Stepp directed the payment be made from a “carryover fund” containing district money left over after paying for services provided by the service center.

The boards of the school district and service center have agreed to adopt measures to provide greater oversight and accountability over the carryover funds.

But questions remain about how Stepp’s controversial fringe benefits — which include a pledge in his latest pact to pay “any tax liabilities” resulting from his educational payments — got into his contract.

No lawyers are listed as being present at any of the closed-door executive sessions where the changes to Stepp’s 2009 or his new contract were discussed.

An email sent Tuesday by The Gazette to district spokeswoman Jeanne Hurt and school board members asking whether the board sought legal advice during the negotiations on Stepp’s contracts in 2009, 2011 and 2013 had not received a response by Friday.

But an email sent last week by Hurt to resident Floralyn Morata provides some possible answers.

“Charley Freeman asked me to respond to your question regarding who drafts Dr. Stepp’s contracts,” Hurt wrote.

“When Dr. Stepp was first hired as superintendent the search firm Finding Leaders drafted his contract. They were then modified through the negotiations process between the Board and the Superintendent.”

Reporter Kiera Manion-Fischer contributed to this story.

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

Contact reporter Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or nglunt@medina-gazette.com.

  • Hagi

    Ok, got it. Randy Stepp got a fat contract, people are mad, BOE members have resigned. Any other news in medina or are u going to ride this horse till it dies

  • WorkingMom

    Again, thank you for all the great work you are doing on this issue. The taxpayers and voters in this community need a voice and the Gazette has provided it. The BOE and Super have ignored us for way too long and it is finally coming to light as it should.

  • willie

    Keep riding, Gazette!

  • Richard Leiby

    They need to keep reporting on scam artist Stepp so voters can see just how corrupt Stepp and the board are before they pass anymore levies to give to Stepp. No one should support this district in anyway until scam artist Stepp and corrupt board all resign. Thank you Medina Gazette for keeping the public informed. Keep up the great work. Don’t drop the ball. Keep digging. Richard

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.campbell.37604 Lisa Steward Campbell

    Thank you for all you are doing to shed light on this story. I had discontinued my subscription last fall to the Gazette after having it delivered for over 20 years. Because of your tenacity…my “Gazette” is back. And I’m going to subscribe again. Please keep up the good work!

  • Ohioguy10

    I think it is important a News source continues to searchnfor the truth. Too often the Gazette has been content to publish bits of anstory and not search for the truth. We have had many scandals in recent years that were not covered accurately or thoroughly.The truth of the entire matter is the Board screwed up and the Super screwednup. It seems almost every day we hear of a new screw up. The fact that many ofnthem do not think they screwed up is almost laughable if it wasnu2019t so seriousnand embarrassing. The very first meeting could have been handled much better. Admit your mistakes, vow to do better, but steps in place to ensure it doesnu2019t happen again. Instead we had members of thenBOE saying we should move on. They either did not want or understand the truthnthemselves and that is what they are there for. If they want to clean up thenmess clean it up when it is made not after it sits and gets bigger and othersnhave to point it out for you. The Super’s comments at the last meeting were horrible. The ego at work here is huge. Does he not understand. He did not help other Supers by getting this contract he has set education back in the county and Ohio. This is hurting Medina and all our surrounding districts. I am sure all the othernschools with a levy are not going to be considered guilty by association! Perhaps the Gazette should ask how othernschools in the area feel about this. Some of them are getting thrown under thenbus and I really doubt, as this article points out, this is common anywhere. Wenhad several people fall down on the job and continue to fall down. How manynpeople are they going to pull down with them until they do the correct thing and resign?

  • Gary Hooker

    I believe we all suspected that paying for college expenses incurred b/4 he was hired was not a common perk, but I do appreciate The Gazette verifying that as fact. I am sure Stepp realizes his tenure here is over. My wish is that If he cares at all about the school system and children he will resign immediately. My expectation is that he is already searching for his next position and won’t leave voluntarily until he has found that next job–I wish him success in finding that position quickly!

  • FactChecker

    Good of the Gazette to take time on this and fact check what everyone already knew. I love a good fact check.

  • FactChecker

    It’s more than just a fat contract, Hagi. There’s a lot of deception, possible misuse of funds not in the contract (the ESC funds), a lot of things that still haven’t come out yet. The Gazette is doing a great job. Read all the articles.

  • Melissa Suthers

    Not everyone has resigned, and not everything has come to light. You can bet that there is more hidden. Stepp acts like its all about him and forget the kids. I dont think we should have to pay for old student loans from the 90s. Stepp and the board abused the trust of the community. So tell me why should they continue to get paid when they are so corrupt? Im glad the medina gazette is bringing all this to light. How else was the public to find out? They hid it from everyone until it was found out. Unless your on the corrupted side with stepp and board, take a stand. My nephew goes to medina schools and it hurts to see those kids go without. Are you a graduate of medina schools? Don’t you want the kids to be given a good education? Instead of whining about whats being reported by a local newspaper. Stand up for the children of this community! Stand up for the taxpayers!

  • BereaBrave

    OK, when Stepp was chosen to lead the schools, the May 11, 2006 Akron Beacon Journal said “Stepp, 40, has a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in administration. He is finishing up his work on a doctorate in organizational leadership at Ashland University.”…. I find it very strange that it took him another 4 years to “finish” up a doctorate.

  • Buffalo

    Wow, Hagi – are you related to Randy or something? Do you not care that taxpayers’ money is being wasted on this jerk? Maybe you are just too lazy or a(pathetic) to care, but there’s a lot of people concerned about the education of their children and the fact that their hard-earned money is being carelessly thrown around without cause or concern. I think the “horse” you speak of should be ridden until all of the useless passengers on the wagon have been tossed off. Stepp down!

  • Medina working stiff

    Hopefully this results in the conviction and imprisonment of Stepp, Vlcek, Freeman, Grenfell, Robinson, and Hudson. Orange jump suits with the word “Lucasville Correctional” would be a fitting conclusion for these insanely corrupt people.

  • Medina working stiff

    Also, Dolan, Wilder, and Ebner need to be scrutinized as well. Time to get fitted for that orange jump suit.

  • GreatRedeemer

    At least the board is taking action to right the wrong. Unlike in Strongsville where, union thug mentality is so 1950 ish. Taxpayers demand an affordale education. The days of fat wages, fat pensions and outstanding low priced health care are over. Good riddance.

  • Thomas Tomello

    Before I left Medina and moved to Florida, I checked into the property tax rates that Medina residents pay. I knew that they were ridiculously high. What I found out was a real shocker. No other state in the entire nation has an average property tax rate as high as Medina does. Not one state. In fact, all of North East Ohio has extremely high property tax rates. As we all know, most of these dollars go to the school systems. But is the Medina school system satisfied that they have duped Medina residents into extremely high property taxes? No. They are constantly begging for yet more money with new levy initiatives. My house in Medina sold for around $340,000. Its appraised value was somewhat less than $300,000. The house I now have in Florida has an appraised value about $30,000 more than my house in Medina did at that time. Yet in Florida I pay less than $200/month in property taxes, most of which, again, goes to the schools. I actually pay $195/month here in Florida. In Medina, I was paying almost $450/month. So you do the math Medina residents. I have a house in Florida worth more money than the house I had in Medina, yet I pay 60% less in property taxes here in Florida. The difference of about $250/month buys a whole lot of groceries. Oh, and we have a functioning bus service for our students here in Florida. Medina residents are being screwed by an out of control school system. I knew this when I left there and it was one of the reasons I left Ohio. After I left, I sent Mr. Stepp a few emails about the property taxes in Medina. He told me that in Florida they u201cmightu201d fund their schools differently. So I looked into it. It turns out, Florida uses property taxes, just like Ohio does. Now, I just have one more point I would like someone to address. Perhaps at the next school board meeting, some fine Medina resident could ask Mr. Stepp this question for me. How many of those hours, Mr. Stepp, that you spent getting that PhD were during working time? In other words, in addition to paying for your tuition (past as well as present), did we also pay you to actually go to school when you were supposed to be working? Iu2019m just curious. Oh, and let me add one more thing in advance. Goodbye Mr. Stepp. I hope that in your next job, the perks you will inevitably receive come from actually doing something constructive.

  • Gunga Din

    This is a piu00f1ata, that needs a couple of more good whacks until all the diverted, sheltered and miss appropriated funds come tumbling out. Riddle me this Stepp Man, are you trying to talk to us fine Medina tax payers like we are bunch of short bus 3rd graders, Really… you hope we believe that paid back your student loans with the money you stole.. Let’s do some math. Ashland college back in the 80s and then again in 2000.nSo you are claiming you carried that much debt and for that long.. OK fine prove it SHOW US THE MONEY.. show the canceled checks. Show hard copy evidence and the paper trail. nnAnyone can show screen capture, Rando.. It’s called photo shop to protect your ass.nShow the paper trail or go to jail nnCome on everyone chant it with me at the next meeting..nnSHOW THE PAPER TRAIL OR GO TO JAIL…….nSHOW THE PAPER TRAIL OR GO TO JAIL……

  • Terry Massey

    I hope the Gazette looks into the cloverleaf school system like the did with Medina , another levy request is coming in May and November…cloverleaf is going to levy us out of our homes.