September 23, 2014

Medina
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Contract will stand, Stepp’s lawyer says

An attorney representing Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp said the school board is legally obligated to stand by its contract with Stepp even if board members violated Ohio’s open meeting law when they voted to approve the pact Jan. 7.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous to think you can give someone a contract, bind them to the contract and then claim, ‘Oops, we didn’t follow the law, we screwed it up, and we’re voiding the contract,’ ” said Gerald Chattman, a partner and specialist in employment law in the Akron firm of Buckingham, Doolittle and Burroughs.

Randy Stepp

The school board Tuesday rescinded Stepp’s five-year contract, which would have kept him in the district until 2019 and included an $83,000 signing bonus.

The board said the contract, which it unanimously approved, was invalid because board members violated the state’s “Sunshine Laws” by failing to announce the reason for the closed, executive session that preceded the vote on the contract. The board also did not publicize that Stepp’s contract was on the meeting’s agenda, as required by state law.

Stepp responded that he would go to court to enforce the provisions in the contract, which has been valued at $1.2 million by the Medina City Teachers Association.

On Wednesday, Stepp’s attorney said that while it may be true that the board didn’t follow all the provisions of Ohio law, that doesn’t mean members can rescind the contract, because it was their fault — not Stepp’s.

“If they did something wrong under the ‘Sunshine Law,’ it would be their obligation to do it the right way,” Chattman said.

Chattman said the board could have chosen to vote on the contract at another meeting, after following the correct procedures.

“The truth of the matter is this board hasn’t learned to be transparent,” he said. “Instead of saying they don’t want to be bound to it anymore, they’re trying to find a trick to get out the contract.

“They’re saying, ‘We can’t fire him for just cause, so let’s just say we rescinded the contract.’ ”

School board President Karla Robinson said she and the other board members took the action to rescind the contract after conferring with Columbus law firm Bricker and Eckler. She said the board began consulting with the firm in March, following the public outcry over the contract.

Though the contract was approved Jan. 7, the board did not issue an announcement until Feb. 28 — after rumors began circulating.

Bricker and Eckler did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday.

Robinson said board members had several conference calls and meetings over the past few weeks with the attorneys before deciding to rescind the contract Tuesday.

On April 8, Stepp was placed on paid administrative leave and asked to stay away from school property. He was also asked not to have direct communication with students, parents or community members.

Robinson said the board has until March 2014 to decide whether it will renew Stepp’s previous contract, which was signed in February 2009 and doesn’t expire until July 31, 2014.

“We rescinded the new contract only yesterday,” Robinson said. “At this time, our board has not yet discussed the disposition of Dr. Stepp’s old contract.”

Robinson also said no decision has been made about how to attempt to recover the $83,000 signing bonus, which was paid in January and aimed at discouraging Stepp from considering other job offers.

At a public meeting on March 8, Stepp agreed to pay back the bonus. But his plan called for biweekly installments spread over the term of his contract.

Robinson said board members are working with their legal team and Treasurer Jim Hudson.

“We will await their advice on how best to proceed,” she said.

In the resolution rescinding the contract, the board stated that one of the reasons for taking the action was because of the threat of a costly lawsuit over the contract.

The Medina City Teachers Association, which represents the school district’s 400-plus teachers, has protested how Stepp’s contract was approved and indicated a lawsuit was possible.

“I don’t know that we’ve been threatening them, but were we planning to file? Yes,” union President John Leatherman said.

He said teachers cheered the board’s decision to rescind Stepp’s contract.

“It certainly cancels quite a few meetings with our attorney,” Leatherman said.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.