June 27, 2016

Mostly cloudy

Medina school board rescinds Stepp’s contract

Kiera Manion-Fischer and David Knox

MEDINA — In a surprise move, the Medina Board of Education voted Tuesday to rescind the controversial contract awarded Superintendent Randy Stepp, which included an $83,000 signing bonus.

In response, Stepp said he would go to court to enforce the contract.

Randy Stepp

The board also agreed Tuesday to withdraw a 5.9-mill levy from the May 7 primary ballot.

Board President Karla Robinson said that the board took the action to void the contract because it was not legally valid.

She explained that the contract, which the board unanimously approved on Jan. 7, violated the state Sunshine laws because the board failed to properly publicize the contract on the agenda of the meeting.

She said the required notices sent to news media did not disclose the contract, and the board did not specify the purpose of the executive session during the meeting.

The minutes of the meeting, ratified by the board on Jan. 22, listed the action as an approval of “amendment to the superintendent’s administrative contract” and not a new five-year pact.

The board did not publicize the new contract until Feb. 28 — after rumors of the signing bonus began circulating.

In the face of a public outcry, Stepp agreed to give back the bonus in biweekly installments over the term of the contract, which didn’t expire until July 2019.

Robinson said that when the controversy began, the board sought legal counsel and were told that the board had not followed Ohio’s Sunshine laws and the contract could be declared invalid.

She said the board decided to act to prevent a possible lawsuit.

“That contract is now null and void,” Robinson said. “The $83,000 retention bonus must be returned to the district.”

She did not say during the meeting whether it would be returned immediately or in the installments Stepp had previously announced.

All of the board members voted in favor of rescinding the contract except Thomas Cahalan, who said he abstained because he was not present for the contract’s approval.

In a written response to the board’s action, Stepp said the contract was valid.

Members of the Medina school board voted Tuesday to rescind Superintendent Randy Stepp’s controversial contract, which was approved Jan. 7, saying the contract’s approval violated Ohio Sunshine Laws. The board also voted to pull a 5.9-mill levy from the May ballot. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY KIERA MANION-FISCHER)

“This action is nothing more than an attempt by the board to profit from their mistake and remove themselves from a legal obligation to uphold a contract that they willfully and unanimously approved on January 7, 2013,” Stepp wrote in an email sent in response to a request for comment.

“To have things unfold the way they have tonight is very disheartening and, as a result, the board has now forced me into a position where I have no other choice but to litigate this matter.”

Stepp also addressed other questions raised about his other fringe benefits — including the payment of more than a quarter-million dollars for his educational expenses — that have fueled the controversy.

Those payments included a $172,000 check issued in January 2012 to the U.S. Department of Education to pay off his three federal college loans for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and doctorate in education from Ashland University and nearly $94,000 in payments over the last three years to Case Western Reserve for a master’s in business administration.

Board members have said they did not know the full cost of the educational payments because Stepp used district money from a “carryover” fund held by the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center.

Stepp defended the payments for his education.

“I want to again assure the community that everything relating to my contracts and education expense reimbursements was done in a transparent manner and in close consultation with the acting board president at the time, including the use of the Medina County Education Service Center to cover past education costs.”

The school board has requested that state Auditor Dave Yost conduct a special audit of Stepp’s use of the carryover fund.

Pending the outcome of the audit, Stepp was placed on paid administrative leave April 8.

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

He was instructed to stay away from district property except for transporting his children to and from school and was told not to use school-controlled communication systems or to communicate with district employees without permission of the board.

He also was told not to take professional development or board-paid travel while on leave.

Stepp responded to being placed on leave by sending out a mass email from his personal account to area news media and district parents.

In the email, Stepp said his contract was negotiated fairly and approved unanimously by board.

He also said the board was aware he was paying for his educational expenses out of the district’s carryover fund.

Stepp said Susan Vlcek, who served as board president in 2011, was aware of the changes in his 2009 contract that obligated the district to pay for his student loans.

In addition to his educational expenses, Stepp also used the ESC carryover fund to pay travel expenses. Earlier this month, The Gazette reported that 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.

The board Tuesday approved the agreement for the state audit.

The board voted to pull the 5.9-mill levy from the May ballot after hearing comments from the community.

All of the board members voted in favor of pulling the levy from the ballot except William Grenfell, who said, “My conscience won’t let me take this levy off the ballot. My position is we keep it on and see what happens.”

Robinson disagreed, saying she knew the levy would fail.

“I do not see the value of spending an additional $29,000 or $30,000 to tell us something we already know.”

Douglas Adamczyk, who was sworn in as the newest board member, said he recognized the need for additional funding.

“We only have three weeks left before the levy,” he said. “My big concern with moving forward with the levy at this time is I do not feel it will be successful.”

About 120 people attended Tuesday’s meeting. Several commented on whether to pull the levy.

Tim Turrittin said he and his wife, Brigid, who co-chair the levy committee for Friends of Medina City Schools, said they could not continue to campaign in the face of the negative public reaction to the controversy over Stepp’s compensation.

“Unfortunately, any momentum we gained last fall has been negated in the past few months,” he said.

Ally McGarr, an eighth-grader at Claggett Middle School, said she was fortunate to have band, choir and gifted programming when she was in elementary school, but her younger brother, who goes to H.G. Blake, does not have the same opportunities.

“If the levy is kept on the ballot, I’m asking you to vote ‘yes,’ “ she said. “We are the ones who need it most.”

The Medina district has failed in the last five levy tries.

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

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

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The Gazette is Medina County's daily local news source, serving the community since 1832. Contact The Gazette's news department at (330) 721-4065 or areanews@medina-gazette.com.