September 2, 2014

Medina
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Medina Schools: Open meetings lawsuit headed to federal court

A Medina resident who filed a lawsuit in common pleas court asking a judge to declare former Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp’s contract invalid is taking his case to federal court.

J.R. Russell filed a motion Monday to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Stepp in U.S. District Court, in Akron, against Medina Schools and the Board of Education on May 17, 2013.

Randy Stepp

Randy Stepp

Russell, who is a lawyer, is arguing that the school board violated Ohio’s open meetings law by failing to properly publicize a five-year contract for Stepp, which unanimously was approved at a “work session” on Jan. 7, 2013.

In Monday’s filing, Russell also is asking the court to find Stepp is not entitled to any bonuses or benefits already paid to him, including an $83,000 signing bonus.

“We feel strongly that this contract is void and that the money should be repaid to the school district,” said Russell’s attorney, Brian Kerns. “This is just a continuation of our efforts to ensure that happens.”

Stepp’s new contract, which provided for annual compensation of $186,000 in wages, bonuses and other fringe benefits in addition to the signing bonus, triggered an outcry — especially from teachers who were in the midst of contract negotiations.

Russell had filed a motion in November to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Stepp in Medina County Common Pleas Court against the school board and state Auditor David Yost, who did a special audit of Stepp’s spending.

The preliminary audit report, released in October, included findings for recovery against Stepp for $4,121 in illegal spending. The report also found nearly $1 million in spending authorized by Stepp that was not properly documented and a half-million dollars in spending “in which the item’s proper public purpose was unclear.”

Two days after the report was issued, the school board voted to fire Stepp.

But Russell’s efforts to intervene ran into a roadblock when visiting Judge Thomas Pokorny declined to issue a ruling and ordered a stay on both Stepp’s and Russell’s lawsuits, pending the outcome of the federal lawsuit.

Stepp filed the federal lawsuit after the school board rescinded his contract in April, saying it was approved without proper publicity and in violation of Ohio’s open meetings law.

In the motion filed Monday, Russell’s attorneys, Maryanne Chandler and Kerns, hope to intervene in Stepp’s federal lawsuit.

The attorneys argue that Russell, as a local resident and taxpayer in Medina, has the standing the court requires to intervene in the case and ask the federal judge to rule on the validity of Stepp’s contract.

“J.R. Russell and other residents of the Medina City School District would prefer the contract amendment be declared unlawful than some financial settlement in which the illegal contract and bonus get paid/retained by Stepp,” the motion states.

Citing case law, Russell argues that federal courts and the justice system have an interest in minimizing unnecessary litigation.

“As such, “federal cases have required intervention … where this would encourage the settlement of all disputes in one lawsuit,” Russell’s motion states.

Medina school board President Tom Cahalan referred questions to the board’s attorneys, who could not be reached for comment Monday.

Stepp’s attorney also could not be reached for comment Monday.

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