July 23, 2016

Mostly clear

Local attorney files lawsuit against Medina school board

Read the text of the initial lawsuit by clicking here.

Loren Genson and David Knox | The Gazette

A local attorney has filed a “taxpayer’s lawsuit” asking that the contract awarded Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp in January be declared invalid because the school board violated the state’s open meetings laws.

The lawsuit introduces a new player and a new court in what has become an increasingly complex legal struggle.

The school board already voted to rescind Stepp’s contract on April 16, stating that it failed to properly publicize the Jan. 7 meeting where the contract was approved.

Stepp responded May 17 by filing a federal lawsuit charging school board members and other district officials with breach of contract, defamation and invasion of privacy. Stepp’s suit was filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District, in Akron.

The new lawsuit was filed Monday by J.R. Russell Jr., of Medina, in Medina County Common Pleas Court, naming as defendants the school board and Stepp.

In his suit, Russell asks for a judgment declaring Stepp’s contract “void and unenforceable” and demands repayment of “any money or benefits” stemming from the agreement, including an $83,000 signing bonus.

The suit also asks that any attempt to enforce the contract by “action in any other tribunal” — an apparent reference to Stepp’s federal lawsuit — be declared invalid.

Russell said he filed the lawsuit on behalf of the voters, taxpayers, parents and students of the school district.

“I want to ensure that those voices are heard, and those interests are addressed,” he said in a prepared statement released by his attorney, Maryann Chandler.

“It has been over six months since the Board attempted to give Mr. Stepp a new contract, and we still do not have a final resolution, let alone one that protects the taxpayers,” he stated.

In addition to Chandler and her partner, Aaron Harrison of Brown, Amodio and Chandler, Russell is represented by Brian Kerns of Isaac Wiles, Burkholder and Teetor, of Medina.

“We look forward to the court determining the taxpayers’ rights of this district,” Kerns said.

Russell’s lawsuit was assigned to Common Pleas Judge Christopher J. Collier.

Tom Cahalan, who was appointed to the school board in March to fill a vacancy left by Dr. Robert Wilder, said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet and was unable to comment.

Interim Superintendent Dave Knight also said he had not yet seen the suit and was unable to make a comment.

Jim Shields, the district’s legal counsel who is named as a defendant in Stepp’s federal lawsuit, also declined to comment.

The lawsuits followed a public furor over Stepp’s contract and subsequent publicity about earlier contracts that provided more than a quarter-million dollars to pay for Stepp’s college degrees.

Stepp has been on paid leave since April 8, pending completion of a special state audit of his use of a district “carryover fund” held by the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center, which was used to make the educational payments.

School board members have said they did not know the full cost of Stepp’s educational expenses, which included a $172,000 check to the U.S. Department of Education to pay off his old college loans for his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in education from Ashland University and more than $94,000 for his master of business administration degree from Case Western Reserve University, awarded in 2012.

Stepp’s federal lawsuit charges that the board was aware of the full cost of the contract provisions but falsely claimed ignorance in a March 22 news release.
The board’s news release included answers to questions sent to board members by The Gazette.

In response to Stepp’s federal lawsuit, the school board filed a countersuit on July 2.

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