July 24, 2016

Mostly cloudy

Candidates questioned on paying super, levy

Medina Schools interim Superintendent Dave Knight speaks to the Medina Breakfast Kiwanis Club Thursday morning about the November levy at a school board candidates' forum at Medina Hospital. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY KIERA MANION-FISCHER)

MEDINA — Superintendent Randy Stepp’s contract and the upcoming levy were among the issues discussed at a Medina school board candidates forum Thursday.

An audience member said the board is paying two superintendents — Stepp and interim Superintendent Dave Knight — and asked how members would avoid “overpaying” for a superintendent in the future.

“Unfortunately, as the community has pointed out several times, (Stepp) is currently on paid leave instead of unpaid leave,” said Tom Cahalan, who was appointed to the board in March after Dr. Robert Wilder retired. “That’s circumstances that have to do with the lawsuit more than anything else.”

The school board is in the midst of two lawsuits: One from Stepp, who sued the board after members rescinded his controversial contract approved in January; and another from a taxpayer who is asking for the court to declare the January contract invalid because board members violated Ohio open meetings laws.

Stepp’s January contract, which allowed for raises and an $83,000 bonus, led to a public outcry, and all of the board members who voted to approve it have either resigned, announced plans to resign or won’t run for re-election.

Cahalan said that while paying two superintendents was not fiscally responsible, the board could invite more lawsuits if it stopped paying Stepp.

“If we were to not do that, there might be other problems, other lawsuits, and we want to avoid that,” he said.

Stepp has been on paid leave since April, pending a special state audit requested by the board of his spending from a “carryover” fund held by the Medina Schools Educational Service Center.

Candidate Robert Skidmore said the superintendent’s contract should have been publicized by the board when it was approved. Skidmore said he opposes bonuses for administrators.

“I think in the future, when we do have a new superintendent’s contract, that it shouldn’t be felt that it should be kept private; it should be something that the public should be aware of,” he said.

Candidate Angie Kovacs said she understood why board members thought they needed to protect their investment in Stepp.

“It was absolutely wrong to put that much money into one person,” she said, “but I see how it happened. So now we know not to repeat that mistake, because history repeats itself.”

Kovacs, though, said she didn’t think performance-based pay isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but added: “If you’re cutting student programming, you can’t give the person who’s running the ship a huge bonus, because that money should go to the kids.”

The forum was congenial, with candidates often agreeing with one another.

Candidate Ron Ross said that going forward, he would look for a superintendent who would engage the community.

“I would look for a superintendent that has some experience, that will help us heal and move forward, and I would look for a superintendent who understands the word ‘sacrifice,’ ” he said. “I don’t disagree with performance-based incentives, but it has to be open and we need to discuss it with you all, because this is your school district and we work for you.”

Candidate Eric Carpenter called the circumstances that led to paying two superintendents an “isolated incident,” because the community has become more engaged.

“Something like this can never happen again,” he said. “Not only between the six of us, we’re not going to let it happen again, but you’ve got other groups here in Medina that will never let this happen again.”

Five of the six candidates spoke at a question-and-answer session sponsored by the Medina Breakfast Kiwanis Club held at Medina Hospital. The candidates are running for three open seats on the board.

Doug Adamczyk was unable to attend, but a statement was read for him.

Adamczyk, who was appointed to the board after president Charley Freeman resigned, wrote that he and Cahalan had engaged the community through coffee and dessert chats, changed the format and times of meetings to allow them to be videotaped and allowed more public comments at meetings.

“I’m running for a seat on the board to continue building what I’ve started,” he said. “I want to focus on transparency, communication, fiscal responsibility and education.”

Tom Borror, past president of the Breakfast Kiwanis Club, said that with few contested races in Medina on the November ballot this year, the school board issues were at the forefront.

Knight also spoke in favor of the five-year, 5.9-mill levy on the November ballot.

The school administration plans to bring back programming that has been cut in past years, such as elementary reading and gifted intervention specialists, as well as busing. But if the levy fails, officials plan to shift to a “banded” elementary school model with two grade levels at each building, and close Heritage Elementary School, along with other cuts.

“If the levy fails, we will continue to dismantle programming — that we have done for the last four years,” Knight said.

Borror asked if anyone would be willing to speak in opposition to the levy, and no one volunteered.

Kids First Medina, the levy campaign organization, and the Medina City Teachers Association sponsored a public forum last week for board candidates and the Medina Chamber of Commerce interviewed candidates as well.

Thursday’s forum was filmed by Medina Cable access, and all the school board candidate forums and interviews can be viewed online at www.medinatv.org.

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