July 24, 2016

Mostly cloudy

UPDATED: Medina superintendent put on paid leave, Stepp responds

UPDATE, 1:30 p.m.: Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp responded to the board’s decision to put him on paid administrative leave with an email to the news media. To read Stepp’s email, click here.

MEDINA — Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp was placed on paid administrative leave Monday morning pending completion of an investigation into his use of district money held in a “carryover” fund at the Medina County Schools’ Educational Services Center.

The announcement comes three days after the school board asked state Auditor Dave Yost to conduct an audit of the fund, which has been used to pay more than a quarter-million dollars for Stepp’s college education costs and travel expenses.

Randy Stepp

Stepp’s contract obligates the board to pay the cost of his old college degrees and a master of business administration degree he received last year from Case Western Reserve University. But board members said they did not know how big a bill Stepp had run up.

“I want to stress that this leave is being taken as part of a standard investigatory procedure,” board President Karla Robinson said at a press conference Monday. “It is not a disciplinary action; it is not an adverse employment action or a finding of wrongdoing on his part.”

Robinson said Stepp has been ordered to turn in his keys to school buildings, swipe cards, district credit cards and other district-owned property.

“We have also instructed Dr. Stepp to not be on district property or report to the district office, unless granted special permission by the board, except for transporting his children to and from school,” she said. “He cannot use any school-controlled use of communications or communicate in any manner whatsoever with employees of the district while on leave unless he has prior permission from the board or has been instructed to do so by the board.”

She said Stepp also has been asked to refrain from professional development or board-paid travel during the leave.

Robinson said the board had not requested Stepp’s resignation, saying that would be premature.

“We will have to see where the investigation takes us,” she said.

At today’s board meeting, Robinson said the board plans to discuss appointing an interim superintendent.

Robinson said the board decided last week to place Stepp on leave, but said school policy required Stepp be notified in person. He was with his family on spring break in Florida last week and returned to work Monday morning.

Robinson said she requested the audit and placed Stepp on leave under her authority as board president. She said the full board would take a vote on the actions at a meeting tonight.

She said Stepp left the building without incident Monday after he was notified.

Stepp responded to being placed on leave by sending out a mass email from his personal account to area news media and district parents minutes before the start of the 2 p.m. press conference.

“I feel the time has come to set the record straight and address the growing number of inaccuracies surrounding my contract and its provisions, which have always been unanimously approved by the board,” Stepp said in the four-page email.

Stepp said the board was aware he was paying for his educational expenses out of the district’s carryover fund held by the Educational Service Center.
Between 2010 and 2012, Stepp authorized $94,000 in payments to Case Western Reserve.

In January 2012, he directed the Educational Service Center treasurer to cut a check for $172,000 to the U.S. Department of Education to pay off his three federal college loans for his other degrees.

He earned a bachelor’s in education in 1993, a master’s in education in 1998 and a doctorate in 2010 — all from Ashland University.

Stepp said Susan Vlcek, who served as board president in 2011, was aware of the changes in his 2011 contract that obligated the district to pay for his student loans.

“I also provided her an approximation as to the amount to be covered,” he said in his email.

Stepp also said Vlcek and the school district’s human resources director and legal counsel, Jim Shields, knew the payments would come from the carryover funds.
“I clearly indicated to Mrs. Vlcek and Mr. Shields that I intended to use funds from the ESC to cover the costs associated with my past education,” he said.
Shields declined to comment. Vlceck is out of town and could not be reached Monday.

Board members have acknowledged knowing Stepp’s tuition at Case was being paid by the district, but in a March 22 statement, said, “The board was not aware of the extent of the reimbursement or that it applied to all degrees.”

Stepp’s email does not address the question of his travel expenses, which also were paid from the ESC carryover fund.

On Wednesday, The Gazette reported Stepp had taken his wife and three adolescent daughters with him to a 2008 National School Boards Association conference in Orlando, Fla. Records show he was reimbursed $4,782.89, including two nights at a luxury hotel after the four-day conference ended.

John Leatherman, president of the Medina City Teachers Association, representing the district’s more than 400 teachers, speculated that The Gazette story about the Orlando trip may have prompted the board to request the special audit.

Leatherman said many teachers were upset after reading the story Wednesday and he urged the teachers to reach out to the school board.

“They continued to see more and more articles, and certainly the Florida trip — it really stressed them out, and they were wondering if the board was going to do something,” he said. “I guess the board decided there were enough issues that an investigation needed to be done.

“I do think this is going to be a start to the healing process.”

Robinson said the board began discussing the need for an audit during a closed, executive session March 27. Only four board members attended that meeting because board President Charles Freeman resigned March 26 amid the growing controversy surrounding Stepp’s contracts and compensation.

On Monday, Robinson said the school board didn’t know the full cost of Stepp’s education until March 6 — after the teachers’ union made a public records request.

The union became interested in Stepp’s fringe benefits after learning in February that the board approved a new contract for Stepp during a work session on Jan. 7 that included an $83,000 signing bonus.

On March 7, the union announced the teachers had taken a “no confidence” vote in both Stepp and the school board.

Robinson said the board’s review of Stepp’s spending over the past few weeks was not a formal investigation, but did prompt it to move forward in requesting help from state Auditor Yost.

Robinson did not rule out a broader investigation.

“That will probably expand in scope once we begin to find out more information,” she said.

The board is scheduled to meet with representatives from Yost’s office this morning to finalize the scope for the state audit.

Robinson said the board will request the auditor to look back 10 years through district payments made using the ESC carryover fund. State law requires the ESC to keep specific invoices for 10 years.

“The problem has been there have not been enough checks and balances for that account,” Robinson said. She said the district is implementing procedures to create greater oversight and has asked the state to review the board’s proposed procedures as part of the audit.

The state has projected the audit will be completed by the end of May. Robinson said Stepp will remain on leave at least until then.

That means Stepp likely will be on leave when voters head to the polls to decide the district’s 5.9-mill levy on the May 7 primary ballot.

Residents and students said the continuing public outcry over Stepp’s compensation has all but ended hope of voter approval of the tax.
The Medina district has failed in the last five levy tries.

Andrew Shea, a junior at Medina High School who serves as a student representative to the school board, said asking for the audit was the right move, but he fears the levy is headed for defeat.

“There’s still a need for the levy. That part hasn’t changed,” he said.

Heather Davis, 35, a Medina resident with a 15-year-old daughter in the district, attended Monday’s press conference.

She called the audit and putting Stepp on administrative leave “a starting point.” But she said she would not vote for the levy.

“I can’t in good conscience support until I know that it will be spent responsibly.”

John Finley, who also attended Monday’s press conference, agreed.

“I feel like we still have a long way to go,” he said. “It’s sad it’s come to this.”

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.