Loren Genson and David Knox
MEDINA — Five years ago this week, Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp turned a four-day national conference for school board members into a weeklong stay with his family at Orlando’s Universal Studios, with taxpayers footing most of the bill.
Stepp was reimbursed $4,782.89 that week — including two nights at a luxury hotel after the conference of the National School Boards Association ended.
Stepp billed the district $2,746.45 for five of seven nights he and his wife and three adolescent daughters stayed at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Studios.
He also was reimbursed $806.56 for two nights at the Orlando World Center Marriott, according to invoices submitted by Stepp to the Medina County Schools Educational Service Center.
In addition, Stepp was reimbursed $186.24 for meals and $1,023.64 for the 2,027-mile, round-trip drive to Florida.
Three Medina school board members also attended the conference in Orlando — but at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers.
Board members Susan Vlcek, Dr. Robert Wilder and Dr. Thomas Ebner stayed at the Caribe Royale hotel, where a room paid for by Ebner averaged less than $200 a night for the four-day conference.
Ebner was the only board member to request reimbursement, according to a search of district financial records requested by The Gazette. His bill, which included some meals for all three board members, parking fees and a two-person suite — totaled $642.87.
Adding the $196.88 deposit for the room, which was paid by the district, brings the total outlay for the three board members to $839.75.
The Gazette asked Stepp why he didn’t take advantage of the cheaper hotel rates provided by the conference.
“When I chose to attend NSBA (at the Board’s recommendation) the hotels available through the conference registration were not available,” he said in an emailed response received late Tuesday afternoon. “I secured the hotels that were available at that time.”
But records show the district paid the $196.88 deposit to reserve a room for Stepp at the Caribe Royale at least two weeks before the conference.
Asked about the deposit and reservation, Stepp did not respond Tuesday.
Vlcek remembered Stepp attending the conference, but said she did not know how much he had been reimbursed because the $4,782.89 check was issued by the county Educational Service Center using district money held in a “carryover” fund.
Stepp’s use of the ESC carryover fund with no oversight from the school board is at the center of the continuing controversy about unusual fringe benefits.
Since 2009, Stepp has negotiated contracts requiring the school board to pay for the cost of his “past college degrees,” “any college coursework completed for the purpose of expanding his professional knowledge,” and “any tax liability that may result form such reimbursements.”
So far, the district has paid more than a quarter-million dollars for Stepp’s education, including nearly $172,000 to pay off his federal student loans and nearly $94,000 for an executive master’s in business administration from Case Western Reserve University.
Board members had encouraged Stepp to get the MBA degree, but said they did not know the total cost of his education because they don’t see the financial statements of the Educational Service Center, which issued all the checks.
$550 a night
Stepp submitted receipts to the ESC treasurer requesting reimbursement for the 2008 conference, which was scheduled for Saturday, March 29 through Tuesday, April 1.
Stepp checked in at the Marriott in Orlando on March 27.
Linda Embrey, a spokeswoman for the National School Board Association, said it wasn’t unusual for conference attendees to come a day early for the meeting of the association’s board of directors and other preliminary events.
Among his receipts were parking fees for March 28 and 29 for the Orange County Convention Center, where the conference was held.
On March 29, the day the conference started, Stepp moved from the Marriott, which cost him about $400 a night for his two-day stay, to the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at the Universal Orlando Resort, where his room cost an average of about $550 a night, including taxes and parking, for the five days he was reimbursed.
The hotel’s website bills the Portofino as a “luxurious hotel” that “recreates the charm and romance of the famed seaside village of Portofino, Italy, right down to the cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes,” canals and gondolas.
The hotel also features live music nightly and a “skip the lines” pass at Universal Studios. When guests at Portofino Bay purchase regular admission to the theme park, they can “skip the line” at Universal attractions, a perk valued at $89 each, according to the hotel website.
Stepp stayed at the Portofino hotel for seven days, from March 29 until April 5, but only requested to be reimbursed for the first five nights.
Medina school district records show the only vacation or personal time Stepp requested in March and April of 2008 was one day — April 25.
Stepp was asked how many days he attended the conference.
“I attended the entire conference,” he said in his email response. “The conference dates were March 29-April 1. Being that the conference was in 2008, I cannot recall the exact sessions in which I attended. However, I believe they were sessions focused on Board governance, community relations, board and superintendent relations, running board meetings, use of technology in schools.”
Stepp submitted 14 receipts for meals totaling $610.80. But he requested reimbursement for only his portion of the bills, which came to $186.24.
Included on his tab were a $23.70 salmon dinner at the Hard Rock Café at Universal Studios, a $31.70 mahi mahi dinner at Fulton’s Crabhouse at the Walt Disney World Resort and a $26 dinner that included a shrimp pasta dish at Trattoria, a restaurant in the Portofino Bay Hotel on April 2 — one day after the conference ended.
Stepp also submitted a mileage reimbursement of $1,023.64 for the 2,027 miles in driving he did to the event. With his reimbursement request Stepp wrote “driving avoided rental car cost and air.”
Asked why he chose to drive rather than fly, Stepp said it was because he and his family already had planned their Orlando trip before he was asked by the board to attend the conference.
“It was spring break and I had planned on vacationing with my family prior to committing to attend the conference,” he said in an email. “When I was encouraged to attend the conference I rearranged my family’s vacation plans. We drove as a family to Orlando. My family vacationed while I attended the conference.”
The Gazette’s records request turned up no flight or mileage expenses for the three board members, Vlcek, Wilder and Ebner.
Paying own way
Medina Schools Treasurer Jim Hudson, said it has been common practice for board members to pay part of their way to attend conferences.
“In the past, several board members would pay for some or all of their trip,” said Hudson, who became treasurer last year. “For example, a board member may have the district pay for the hotel but he/she may pay for the car rental.”
School board members took advantage of low-cost room rates offered for the conference. Embrey, spokeswoman for the National School Board Association, said her organization works to keep cost down for the attendees.
“We negotiate a very low rate that is reasonable,” she said. “Our goal is to have a much lower rate than the prevailing rate. I’d call it a conference rate.”
The Medina district originally reserved three rooms at the Caribe Royale — for Stepp and two board members.
But Hudson said he was able to find a record of one room used. He believes the district got the deposits back for the unused rooms.
Vlcek stayed at the Caribe Royale only on the first night, March 28, according to district records.
Ebner and Wilder arrived the next day. Ebner paid for the room and several meals using his personal credit card.
The reimbursement check to Ebner was paid directly out of Medina Schools’ funds through the district’s treasurer’s office — unlike Stepp’s reimbursements check from the ESC.
The room was a two-person suite and it’s possible Wilder shared it with Ebner.
But neither Wilder nor Vlcek requested any reimbursement.
Vlcek said she stayed at a timeshare condominium with her family at their own expense. Vlcek said her timeshare was next to a conference hotel, and she caught the shuttle to the conference with the board members.
“We have our own timeshare and I just went to the conference during the day,” Vlcek said. “I went to three full days of the convention.”
Vlcek’s only cost to the district was one meal she shared with Ebner and Wilder on March 30 following a day at the conference.
The conference was during a spring break, she said. After it ended, she stayed a few more vacation days with her family before heading back to Ohio.
Vlcek said the conference was helpful because it provided an opportunity to network with other school board members across the country and try new initiatives.
“I got the idea to have a student representative serve on the board from that conference,” Vlcek said.
Tightening purse strings
The school district paid $3,300 in conference registration fees for Stepp and four board members. But one member, George Marquis, didn’t attend because he resigned the board in February 2008.
Vlcek said the 2008 conference was one of the last attended by a Medina school board member because of budget cutbacks.
Ebner and Wilder, who no longer are on the school board, did not return calls seeking comment.
Last week, Vlcek and the school board members apologized for the lack of oversight concerning the ESC carryover funds and pledged to adopt new procedures.
The “carryover” funds include money left over after the district pays the ESC for a variety of services, including school nurses, interpreters for the deaf, bus driver training and computer specialists. Leftover money can be applied to future ESC expenses, but can be used for other purposes at the direction of the superintendent.
Under the proposed changes, expenditures less than $10,000 from the carryover fund would require approval of the superintendent, district human resources director and the treasurer. Expenses more than $10,000 also would require the signature of the school board president.
Stepp was the only Medina Schools official involved with his reimbursement.
On March 21 — six days before arriving in Orlando — Stepp directed ESC Treasurer Michelle McNeely to create a purchase order, setting aside $1,600 in the district’s carryover fund for his trip.
But on March 31, two days after Stepp moved into the Portofino Bay Hotel, the amount was more than doubled. In an email to another ESC employee, McNeely asked that the amount on the purchase order be increased and directed the employee to notify Stepp’s secretary of the change.
“Could you please change the [purchase order] we did for Medina City/Randy Stepp for conference from $1,600 to $5,000?” McNeely wrote. “Apparently, the initial amount is not going to be enough to cover the costs associated with his trip/conference.”