June 27, 2016

Mostly cloudy

School board OK’s $20,000 contract for PR firm’s work

MEDINA — The city school board approved Tuesday a controversial contract with the Cleveland public relations firm of Hennes Paynter Communications.

The company, which specializes in “crisis management,” was hired March 6 — the day after The Gazette reported the details of Stepp’s new contract, which provided an $83,000 signing bonus.

The firm worked for two weeks, at a cost of $20,370.

All but one of the board members voted to approve the contract, which had been signed by board member Susan Vlcek.

Thomas Cahalan abstained from the vote because he was not on the board when the contract was signed. Cahalan was named to the board March 24 to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Dr. Robert Wilder.

Someone in the audience interrupted the vote to ask why the contract was approved.

Board President Karla Robinson said the firm was hired “in response to the overwhelming number of calls, emails and media questions that we had regarding the superintendent’s contract.”

Robinson said the firm’s advice was “extremely helpful.”

“We needed objective third-party communications to assist us with prioritizing our response, organizing our response, figuring out what we need to research in order to respond more effectively to the community,” she said. “We were truly overwhelmed. … We were in over our heads.”

Vlcek agreed that the district did not have the staff to handle the public outcry.

“We have reduced our administration in various areas, and we just did not have the people to deal with the situation,” she said.

A Gazette reporter asked Vlcek why the contract with Hennes Paynter was not considered by the full board, which met in a work session on the evening of March 6 — several hours after Vlcek signed the contract.

“We had not announced we would take action (at the meeting), so we couldn’t take action,” she said.

Vlcek also was asked why the contract was not approved sooner. The contract wasn’t made public until April 3 — after a public records request by The Gazette.

She said the board was too busy trying to find a replacement for Wilder.

The board also discussed the possibility of pulling the district’s 5.9-mill levy from the May 7 primary ballot.

Jeanne Hurt, community information coordinator, said it is still possible for the board to withdraw the levy, but the Medina County Board of Elections already has spent money on printing the ballots and poll worker training.

Andrew Shea, a junior at Medina High and the non-voting student representative on the board, said a levy still is needed.

“I, as a student, still need a passed levy, he said. “Regardless of the controversy that’s occurred, regardless of when the next levy is, they are going to put a ‘no’ on that ballot.”

Shea added that with the ratification of the teachers’ contract and the state audit, he believes the board is moving in the right direction.

The board went into executive session to interview candidates to replace board president Charles Freeman, who resigned March 26.

The board will reconvene today at 6 p.m. in the Medina High School media center to finish the interviews of seven new candidates who applied.

The board did not re-interview the 11 previous candidates who applied for a seat left vacant by Wilder’s resignation, but they will be considered to fill Freeman’s position.

Bethany Dentler, executive director of the Medina County Economic Development Corp., also gave a presentation to the board about tax abatement agreements negotiated with companies in Montville Township.

Contact reporter Kiera Manion-Fischer at (330) 721-4049 or kfischer@medina-gazette.com.