July 23, 2016

Mostly clear

Board to public: Should we proceed with levy?

MEDINA — The Medina City school board is asking voters whether they should keep the 5.9-mill levy on the May primary ballot or hold off until the November general election.

“We are eager to hear from community members what should be done about leaving the levy on the ballot or postponing it,” board President Karla Robinson said in a statement Wednesday. “We have heard conflicting opinions from our various stakeholders — teachers, students, parents, community members.

“This is a difficult decision, as the need for funds hasn’t gone away.”

The district, which has failed to pass a levy in five tries, is facing a $3 million deficit in fiscal year 2014, a projected deficit of $5.6 million in fiscal year 2015 and an 18.2 million deficit in fiscal year 2016, officials have said.

Levy supporters fear a backlash from voters over the continuing controversy surrounding Superintendent Randy Stepp .

Stepp was suspended with pay Monday, pending an investigation by the state auditor into his spending of district money held in a “carryover” fund at the Medina County Schools’ Educational Services Center .

The fund was used to pay more than a quarter million dollars for Stepp’s college education costs and for travel expenses.

This is the second time the board has considered pulling the levy from the May 7 ballot. On March 15 — 10 days after The Gazette published details of Stepp’s new contract, which included an $83,000 signing bonus — the board agreed to move forward with the levy campaign.

But subsequent revelations about the fringe benefits in Stepp’s contracts, including paying off his federal college loans and the cost of a master’s in business administration, and questions about other payments from the ESC carryover fund have fueled continued controversy.

Last week, The Gazette reported that in 2008 Stepp was reimbursed $4,782.89 from the ESC fund for a 2008 trip to Orlando , Fla., for a National School Boards Association conference. Stepp was accompanied by his wife and three teenage daughters and has said he billed the district only for his expenses. But records show he included receipts for two nights at a luxury hotel after the four-day conference ended.

The “Medina City Schools Outrage” Facebook page, started in early March by Medina resident Mark Kuhar, continues to call for more action by the board.

“I’d like to see another couple people resign from the board,” said Kuhar , who has two children attending Medina schools and another who graduated from Medina High. “I certainly would like to see a new superintendent.”

Kuhar has organized a meeting today at 7 p.m. at Williams on the Lake , 787 Lafayette Road , Medina , “to plan a course of action for the coming weeks.”

“At some point the Outrage Page is going to become the Engaged Page,” he said.

Kuhar said he put a survey question on his Facebook page today asking “Would you vote for a school levy if you were satisfied that the school had a dire financial need and the right administrative people were in place to assure financial responsibility?”

The vote count as of Wednesday night was 100 “yes” and 24 “no.”

Kuhar was one of about 30 people who attended Tuesday’s school board work session who were disappointed they were not allowed to speak. Several people interrupted the meeting with questions and urged the board to withdraw the levy to save money.

The board is inviting residents to comment on the levy on the district’s web site, www.medinacityschooldistrict.org.

Residents may also attend the board’s next meeting, which has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Medina High School ’s Middle Auditorium. The board plans to reserve additional time for public comment at that meeting.

How much the board could save is not clear.

Carol Lawler, Medina County Board of Elections director, said the elections board has not yet provided an estimate to the school district for how much it would cost to pull the levy off the ballot now that early voting has begun.

The total cost of the election to district taxpayers would be between $1,000 and $1,200 per precinct, and the district has 33 precincts, Lawler said.

So far, the board has completed poll worker training, printed paper ballots for Election Day, and completed voting machine testing. But most of the cost stems for moving voting machines to polling locations the Friday before the election, she said.

If the levy is approved, the district has pledged to reinstate programs that have been cut, including reading intervention teachers at the elementary level, guidance counselors/social workers, busing, middle school electives, gifted services rotating between buildings at the elementary level, and full-time elementary level physical education, music and art, as opposed to the current two-thirds time.

Now, busing is at state minimum standards, where students who live fewer than two miles from school do not get busing, and there is no transportation for high school students.

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