October 24, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
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Top 10 stories of 2013: Stepp takes No. 1 spot

Randy Stepp

No. 1: Turmoil over Stepp contract year’s top story

This year was a tumultuous one for Medina City Schools. The turmoil began in early March, when word was leaked to the union representing the district’s 400 teachers that Superintendent Randy Stepp had been given a new five-year contract that included a $83,000 signing bonus.

The school board had approved the contract, which was listed on the agenda as an amendment rather than a new contract, at a Jan. 7 work session.

The public backlash about the contract, which the union valued at $1.2 million, resulted in the resignation of board President Charley Freeman and the decision by two other members, Karla Robinson and Susan Vlcek, to leave at the end of this year.

It also has cost Stepp his job. The board placed him on paid leave in April pending the results of a special state audit into his spending.

After the audit reported Stepp had illegally spent at least $4,121, the school board voted unanimously on Oct. 24 to begin the process of firing him.

The audit also found a half-million dollars in spending from the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center fund “in which the item’s proper public purpose was unclear” and a total of $1 million in spending that lacked proper authorization from the school district.

The auditors said the examination into the spending was continuing and a more complete report would be made.

Stepp has responded with lawsuits in both federal and county courts.

While Stepp’s new contract triggered the controversy, revelations about provision of his earlier contracts fed the public outcry.

The Gazette reported in March that a Nov. 7, 2011, amendment to his 2009 contract provided that the district pay the cost of Stepp’s past college loans. Two months later, Stepp directed the treasurer of the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center to write a check for $172,000 to pay off his federal college loans.

The state auditors could not determine whether the $172,000 payoff of student loans on Stepp’s behalf using ESC funds in 2012 should have been reported on Stepp’s W-2 forms. They turned the matter over to the Internal Revenue Service for further investigation.

The board also agreed to a contract provision to pay more than $93,000 for Stepp’s master’s degree in business administration at Case Western Reserve University in 2012.

In total, the district spent more than a quarter-million dollars on Stepp’s educational expenses.

On April 3, The Gazette reported Stepp was reimbursed $4,782 from the district’s carryover fund for a 2008 trip to Orlando, Fla., for a National School Board Conference.

Stepp was accompanied by his wife and three daughters and said he billed the district only for his expenses. But records show he included two nights’ stay at a luxury hotel after the four-day conference ended.

Two days later, school board members announced they asked State Auditor Dave Yost to conduct a special audit into Randy Stepp’s spending from the ESC carryover fund.

On April 10, Douglas Adamczyk was appointed to fill Freeman’s position on the board. He joined Tom Cahalan, who had been appointed in March to replace Dr. Robert Wilder, who retired from the board in February.

On April 16, the school board voted to rescind Stepp’s contract, saying the board had violated sunshine laws in approving it in January without proper public notice.

Later that month, Dave Knight, a retired Sidney Fenn Elementary School principal, was appointed to serve as interim superintendent.

On May 17, Stepp filed a federal lawsuit charging school board members and district officials with breach of contract for rescinding his contract. He also filed claims of defamation and invasion of privacy. He asked that the “full value” of his five-year contract be awarded to him, and also seeks damages for “mental anguish and suffering.” He also revoked the offer to repay his signing bonus.

On July 28, local lawyer J.R. Russell Jr. files a “taxpayers” lawsuit in Medina County Common Pleas Court asking the court declare Stepp’s contract invalid because of sunshine law violations.

On Oct. 24, the school board voted unanimously to begin the process of firing Randy Stepp, taking him off paid leave.

On Nov. 5, Cahalan and Adamczyk kept their seats on the board, and Robert Skidmore was elected to fill the final open seat left vacant by Bill Grenfell, who chose not to seek re-election.

On Nov. 15, Stepp sued Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, accusing that office of performing a biased and therefore illegal audit into his spending.

In his complaint, Stepp accused William J. Ward, who he said worked as the audit’s senior manager, of impropriety because Ward is a Medina resident and had a specific interest in deposing Stepp.

He also said Ward sits on the board of trustees of Project: LEARN, which hired school board President Karla Robinson as its executive director while the audit was ongoing.

In December, Robinson announced she and Vlcek would both resign their positions effective Jan. 1, instead of at the end of the school year as she had originally planned. A search is under way to find two replacements as the board starts the new year.

— Loren Genson and Kiera Manion-Fischer

No. 2: Amish family flees to avoid forced cancer treatments

A Homer Township Amish family’s decision to stop chemotherapy treatments for their 11-year-old daughter drew national attention and sparked a lengthy court battle with a hospital.

Sarah Hershberger and her parents haven’t been seen by court officials or Akron Children’s Hospital since at least October, when Medina County Probate Judge Kevin W. Dunn appointed hospital nurse Maria Schimer to be Sarah’s “limited guardian,” giving Schimer the power to make the girl’s medical decisions.

Andy and Anna Hershberger, Sarah’s parents, were reported to have left the country with their daughter to avoid the severe side-effects of the chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

The parents claim the girl is cancer-free as a result of natural medicine, such as vitamins and herbs.

In court, physicians said Sarah would die within a year if she didn’t get treatment, and said she had an 85 percent chance of survival with chemotherapy.

Schimer asked to resign as guardian, saying the family clearly didn’t want her help.

Last week, Sarah’s parents filed a motion asking the Ninth District Court of Appeals to allow Schimer to resign, saying her appointment violated their constitutional right to determine what is best for their daughter.

The case began in April, when the Hershbergers took Sarah to the hospital to seek treatment. They at first accepted chemotherapy, according to court records, but later stopped the treatments after seeing the side effects.

The hospital sued in probate court to get Schimer appointed, and the case bounced between there and the Ninth District Court of Appeals. In October, the appeals court ordered Dunn to appoint Schimer.

— Nick Glunt

No. 3: County clerk of courts pleads no contest to misusing public funds

David Wadsworth, Medina County clerk of courts, pleaded no contest in September to a charge of misuse of public funds in connection with his 2012 election campaign.

In a statement released by his attorney, Wadsworth said he was not aware one of his employees had been doing campaign work while on taxpayers’ time and using county equipment.

Wadsworth said the employee printed campaign fliers on a printer in the clerk’s office during work hours.

At a Sept. 4 hearing, Medina Municipal Court Judge Dale Chase agreed to allow Wadsworth to enter the court’s first-time offender program, Alternative Paths.

The charge, a first-degree misdemeanor, could have been punishable with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

If Wadsworth successfully finishes the program, the charge will be dismissed but failure to complete the program will result in a guilty finding, according to court documents signed by Chase.

Wadsworth will be in the diversion program for six months to a year, according to Alternative Paths’ website. Those accepted into the program are required to pay a $550 fee.

Several months before Wadsworth was charged, a Medina County Common Pleas Court deputy-clerk filed a federal lawsuit against him.

Julie Kaufmann charged Wadsworth fired her in retaliation for reporting him to the county prosecutor for using county time, money and resources for his reelection campaign.

Kufmann’s allegations in the lawsuit led to the criminal investigation against Wadsworth.

The federal suit seeks reinstatement of Kaufmann’s job, damages from the county and Wadsworth, legal fees and a declaratory judgment that Wadsworth violated her rights.

Wadsworth, a Republican, won election in November after he was appointed clerk in 2011 to succeed Kathy E. Fortney, who retired.

— Dan Pompili

No. 4: Convicted killer sentenced to death

Almost three years after 73-year-old Frank Munz’s murder, a judge sentenced Steven Cepec to death. Cepec was convicted after a month-long trial before Medina County Common Pleas Judge James L. Kimbler. He was charged with aggravated murder, aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery.

Trial testimony showed Cepec beat Munz to death with the claw-end of a hammer and strangled him with a lamp cord in Munz’s Chatham Township home on June 3, 2010.

Cepec said on the stand he intended to rob Munz for drug money but ended up killing him when Munz fought back.

Cepec had just been released from prison six days earlier.

It took more than 2½ years for the case to reach trial. Cepec underwent competency evaluations to see if he was fit to stand trial, and there were several changes of attorney.

Cepec’s death by lethal injection is scheduled for June 3, 2014 — exactly four years after Munz’s death.

Prosecutors have said appeals in the case could delay Cepec’s death 20 or more years.

— Nick Glunt

No. 5: Rising number of teenage suicides in Medina County

It was a sad but telling coincidence. The day before representatives of the United Way of Medina County and dozens of other local agencies gathered in Sharon Township on Sept. 27 to discuss the growing problem of teenage suicides, a 15-year-old Medina High School student was found dead in the woods behind his Montville Township home.

United Way Executive Director Seth Kujat said finding ways to prevent such tragedies is “the greatest need in Medina County right now.
“We have to show these kids that our community supports them.”

Last year, a 14-year-old Claggett Middle School student was one of two teenage suicides in the county.

The county saw only one juvenile suicide in 2010 and in 2011, according to the Medina County Health Department.

Kujat said the group’s effort would focus on fostering positive relationships between students and counselors, youth support groups and awareness initiatives.

The meeting had been planned since July, when The Gazette published an in-depth report on the death of the Claggett student, 14-year-old Deven Baab, who took his own life in November 2012.

The report raises questions about the effectiveness of Ohio laws and school district policies aimed at protecting children:

• Although Ohio requires school officials and dozens of other types of professionals to report suspected child abuse and neglect, there is no similar statute requiring anyone to report if a child is suicidal.

• The state law requiring suspected abuse be reported is rarely prosecuted. Some legal scholars say the language of the statute is flawed, making enforcement difficult.

• The Medina school board’s bylaws and policies include step-by-step procedures staff members should follow when dealing with a suicidal student. However, there are no specific guidelines explaining how to handle third-party reports from outside school.

• School officials made no formal inquiry to evaluate the staff’s response to a telephone call from the mother of a classmate of Deven Baab, who called the school four days before the boy’s death and said he was talking about killing himself.

School officials had been in contact with the boy’s father since mid-October because the boy was showing other students self-inflicted cuts on his wrist and, later, scratches on his chest.

But the father was not informed of the mother’s warning — a fact that triggered a five-month investigation by Medina Township and Medina city police.

The investigation ended with prosecutors declining to bring charges.

The boy’s father, Richard Baab, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Medina County Common Pleas Court last month against the Medina Schools, claiming school administrators could have prevented the boy’s death.

— David Knox

No. 6: Two school districts pass levies

This year, two Medina County school districts passed levies after campaigns led by parents concerned about threatened drastic program cuts.

In November, voters in the Medina City school district approved a five-year, 5.9-mill levy passed by a vote of 7,172 to 5,142, or about 58 percent to 42 percent, a wide margin. A levy had not been approved in Medina since 2005.

Interim Superintendent Dave Knight had warned that without passage of a levy, the district would be forced to close Heritage Elementary School and no longer offer neighborhood elementary schools, instead grouping elementary students by grade level. Middle school sports and extra-curricular activities would have been cut as well.

Voters in the Heritage neighborhood of Ward 3 gave the levy the highest percentage of “yes” votes — about 71 percent.

On election night, after the results came in, Knight thanked the community for their support.

“There are so many people to thank — parents, staff, everybody in the community,” he said. “I want to reassure everyone that we will provide great value for the dollars that we spend as we bring back new programs.”

The levy’s passage will allow Medina City Schools to bring back busing within a one-mile radius of all school buildings as well as reading intervention, gifted services, counseling services and more art, music and gym classes for elementary students.

Earlier in the year, Black River Schools faced a levy fight as well. The district had been under a “fiscal caution” designation from the Ohio State Auditor.

Black River voters had not approved a levy for new operating money since 1997.

The 8.7-mill, five-year emergency levy passed in the May primary by 52 votes.

If the levy had failed, there would have been no money for building improvements; all advanced placement, industrial arts and wood courses would have been eliminated; and any teacher who retired this year would not have been replaced; and pay-to-participate would have increased.

School officials had discussed cutting the school day to the state minimum of 5 1/2 hours, limiting lunch, and cutting physical education, art and music for elementary students and reducing it for older students if the levies had continued to fail.

When reached on election night, parent Melissa Sas, who co-chaired the levy campaign, said the hard work of the community paid off.

“So many endless hours of work has been put in by so many people in order to pass this levy,” she said. “Black River has proven that they are a community that knows how to pull together and knows how to work together to accomplish goals.”

Other school districts did not fare so well. In November, voters in the Brunswick and Cloverleaf school districts rejected levies on the ballot.

— Kiera Manion-Fischer

No. 7: Summer road construction in Medina slows traffic

This summer’s road construction left many Medina-area motorists hot and bothered. Repaving, bridge work and water line projects in Medina’s Public Square slowed traffic to a crawl for miles in all directions along state routes 18 and 57.

The Ohio Department of Transportation repaved state Route 18 east and west of the city and state Route 57 south of the city.

The $2 million project was part of the Urban Paving Program through the Federal Highway Administration, which provides money annually for state and federal road maintenance and is administered by ODOT.

The project cost was split 80 percent to 20 percent between the state and city.

Medina’s share of the cost is $400,000.

At the same time the roads were being repaved, city workers replaced the century-old water lines along the south and east sides of Public Square, a $472,000 project.

Adding to the congestion, a bridge East Smith Road, near River Styx Road in Montville Township, was closed for more than two months for a $432,000 federally funded bridge reconstruction.

Mayor Dennis Hanwell’s office fielded calls from irate motorists chasing pavement and getting nowhere.

The roads were smooth and black with new asphalt in time for the Candlelight Walk, Nov. 22-24.

Next year, ODOT plans to resurface state Route 3 and U.S. Route 42 within Medina from mid-May to mid-October.

— Dan Pompili

No. 8: Brunswick woman found dead in her car

Mary Tench, a Brunswick grandmother was found dead in her car Nov. 12 in a Brunswick industrial park less than a mile from her home.

Medina County Coroner Dr. Neil Grabenstetter ruled the 55 year old’s death a homicide two days after she was found, saying she died as a result of “multiple blunt trauma injuries to head and neck with skull fractures.”

As the New Year approaches, no one has been charged with the crime.

Her son, James Tench, 27, was questioned and turned over to the Strongsville Police Department, where he is being held on a $2 million bond for an October armed robbery.

He faces four kidnapping charges and two aggravated robbery charges for his role in a robbery at the Old Carolina Barbecue on Pearl Road in Strongsville on Oct. 28.

Strongsville Police said the kidnapping charges were levied against him because he held people at the restaurant against their will at gunpoint.

A family member reported the grandmother of four, Mary Tench, missing to police about 3 a.m. Nov. 12. Her body was found that afternoon.

Brunswick police confirmed Tench, who shared a home with his mother at 758 Camden Lane, is a suspect in the case. He remains in the Strongsville jail.

— Loren Genson

No. 9: Brunswick council sells acres for hotel, apartments

Brunswick City Council agreed in August to sell 18.2 acres of city property in Brunswick Town Center to a Canton developer who promises to build a hotel, luxury apartments and senior living complex in three phases.

City officials hope the deal will finally fulfill the promise of Town Center to provide a central core that will draw more development.

The land is just south of Brunswick Town Center, which includes restaurants, small shops and is anchored on either side of the parking lot by Giant Eagle and Home Depot.

Council members always hoped to bring a hotel and housing to the area to drive foot traffic to the businesses in Brunswick Town Center.

The city received $1.8 million for the land, which will help defray the expenses the city took on when developing Brunswick Town Center.

City Finance Director Todd Fischer said the idea of developing the plaza was never to make a profit on the sale of property, but to encourage long-term economic development.

Tim Smith, the city’s economic development manager, estimates the new construction, which will be at the southern-most section of the plaza, is expected to bring in about $40 million worth of construction.

The developer’s plans for a hotel, 105 to 114 luxury apartments and between 80 and 100 assisted-living senior housing units are included in the contract Council approved Monday night.

Bill Lemon, a spokesman for McKinley Development, said the work will begin in mid-2014.

— Loren Genson

No. 10: Seven rabid bats found in county

Medina County went more than a little batty this year. A total of seven bats tested positive for rabies in 2013 — two more than the combined total of the last nine years.

Only in one case was a person thought to have been exposed to the virus by direct contact with the bat. That resident was advised to get medical treatment.

The reports of rabid bats came from all parts of the county and at different times of the year.

The first rabid bat was discovered March 6 in Medina. Residents found the bat alive in the kitchen sink of their East Liberty Street home and sent it to an Ohio Department of Health laboratory in Columbus.

The second bat was found May 16 in Brunswick, in a home on Alda Parkway, on the city’s northeast side.

Later in May, another bat was found — this time in Litchfield Township, in a home on Norwalk Road.

The next three reports — one in June and two in August — came from the Chippewa Lake-Gloria Glens area. Two of the bats were found in homes and one in a tree near the Chippewa Lake beach.

The last bat was found Sept. 27 in a Brunswick home in the 800 block of Penny Drive on Friday.

Because the bats were discovered in different areas, county health department officials doubted the cases were related.

Lynee Bixler, a spokeswoman for the Medina County Health Department, said bats are common in Ohio, and it’s not unusual for some of them to test positive for rabies. Still, the local rabies tests rank slightly higher than the state average.

This year, seven out of 122 bats tested positive for rabies, about 5.7 percent. The state average is about 4.25 percent.

Bixler speculated that the increased reports of infected bats may be linked to a greater awareness among the public of the issue.

“We are not alarmed because we’re attributing the increase to the fact that people are more aware and following our advice” to turn in captured bats found in homes for testing, Bixler said.

But Michael Koski, president of Get Bats Out, a commercial bat-removal company based in Carbondale, Colo., said the increase may be part of a natural cycle.

“We will see an outbreak like this in about five or six counties a year nationwide,” he said.

— David Knox