Medina levy issue crumbles as state probes district, superintendent’s finances

By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer

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The Medina school board has rescinded Superintendent Randy Stepp’s contract.

The board also voted Tuesday to remove a 5.9-mill levy on the May 7 ballot in response to public backlash stemming from investigations launched by local media and the teachers’ union that found hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars — approved by the board — that were spent on Stepp.

The expenditures are now the focus of a state auditor office’s investigation that is expected to be concluded by the end of May.

The board renegotiated Stepp’s contract in January and released the document in late February after talk of a $83,000 signing bonus circulated the community.

Board President Karla Robinson said because the board did not notify the media of the vote on the new contract in January it’s “null and void,” because they violated Ohio’s so-called Sunshine Law requiring open meetings.

“Our board is hopeful that, as the community witnesses our diligent efforts to improve our processes, fix our mistakes when possible, and put in place checks and balances to ensure this never happens again, we will be able to forge a better, stronger relationship with everyone in the community, our unions as well,” Robinson said in a written statement. “We know that we have a long way to go in this regard. Hopefully, our actions last evening will demonstrate to our unions and our community that we are serious about working as hard as we can to regain their trust.”

Gerald Chattman, Stepp’s attorney, disagrees with the board’s decision.

Chattman said the board is attempting to break the terms of the contract citing their own mistake.

“It’s ludicrous,” he said. “They entered into a contract. They ratified that contract and now they want to say that.”

Chattman said he wonders why the board did not approach his client to negotiate with him to end the contract.

He said a financial starting point with the board would be five times the contract’s base salary of $134,700.

“Now how much would Randy take without walking away with all of it? That’s really a decision that the client gets to make,” he said. “Not the attorney.”

Stepp agreed to repay the $83,000 bonus in early March. The move came after public outcry over the bonus, plus other benefits paid to Stepp through a “carry-over” account at the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center (ESC).

Financial transactions

Disclosures of the expenditures came after John Leatherman, president of the Medina City Teachers Association, had requested 800 pages of financial records detailing nearly $3 million in transactions made through the account since 2008.

“There’s a lot of things that stand out in that document,” Leatherman said.

The largest item: Stepp’s personal college expenses over the past three years. Those expenses totaled $265,000 to pay off loans and tuition for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and doctorate work at Case Western University.

In response to questions by the Medina Gazette, the board said it was unaware that Stepp’s contract entitled him to more than a quarter-million dollars in educational reimbursements.

“The Board of Education was aware that Dr. Stepp was receiving tuition reimbursement. The board was not aware of the extent of the reimbursement or that it applied to all degrees,” the board told the newspaper.

The financial documents also detailed thousands of dollars in reimbursements for professional development expenses, among them a 2008 trip to Orlando for a National School Boards Association conference that Stepp attended with his family.

The account, under investigation by the state auditor, lists reimbursements of less than $100 for groceries to $5,000 administrative retreats to $10,000 checks for “day-to-day technical support” and more for hotels and other accommodations related to professional development trips.

Stepp authorized nearly every account withdrawal since 2008 totaling more than $2.9 million.

Medina County ESC Treasurer Michelle McNeely said that she made the payments requested by Stepp because she was under the impression that Stepp was operating on behalf of the education board.

While that account is investigated, the board has placed the superintendent on paid leave. Stepp’s current contract expires July 2013, though many provisions of the rescinded contract would have kicked in before then.

‘We’ve lost all faith’

The district has already made budget cuts. Teachers accepted a pay freeze and higher health insurance rates in a contract ratified on March 7. That same day, Leatherman and the teachers’ union gave a “no confidence” vote to the school board.

“It just makes a strong statement that we’ve lost all faith,” Leatherman said.

Stepp’s controversial five-year contract set a base salary of $134,700 with a 3.36 percent raise next year and a guaranteed 2 percent raise in each of following years. His annuity jumped from $16,000 to $25,000 and the board also agreed to increase his reimbursement for driving.

Stepp was also given five additional vacation days to 30 a year. A review of area superintendents’ contracts shows that most superintendents receive 20 to 25 vacation days. Few receive 30 and none receive reimbursement of educational expenses.

Though he previously agreed to repay his bonus at a rate of $1,000 a month, the board has demanded that the $83,000 be paid sooner.

“Our legal counsel is currently reviewing the contract and the associated pay,” Robinson said. “We are sure they will report to our board on the entire dollar amount in short order.”

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.


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