Medina is a fine place to call home. For the quiet and conservative-minded, politically and otherwise, it's an oasis. For people like Randolph Scott Stepp, it more accurately may be described as a kingdom.
In all of Medina, and likely the county writ large, Stepp may now claim the title of Villain of the Year. Persona non grata. Criminal.
That's because Stepp just fell off the back end of seven years as the city school district's superintendent. And with the benefit of hindsight and a citizenry that turned vigilant, those seven years are now seen for the tarnished era they were.
Once the darling of the Northeast Ohio suburb scene, Medina could hold its schools on high. But revelations and accusations have torn that sterling reputation asunder. In Stepp's wake, Medina found itself faltering, connected far too long to its academic king with far too few questions, all aided and abetted by a complacent school board that ushered in widespread and largely inconceivable financial recklessness.
The year 2013 will — and already does — in retrospect read like something from the Sophocles canon for the folks down I-71.
In March, headlines ripped across the local presses with startling news. For example, the Medina Gazette, which would lead the traditional Fourth Estate charge throughout the year, ran this one on March 9: "Medina school board OKs Superintendent Randy Stepp's contract, including $83,000 signing bonus."
The community blew up.
"That was definitely the catalyst for getting people to finally form together," Medina parent Angie Kovacs says. She and hundreds more flocked instinctively to board meetings from then on, squaring scrutinizing eyes on a board that once presided over mostly empty chairs in the audience.
Immediately following the news, the "Medina City Schools Outrage Page" cropped up on Facebook. Hundreds of residents came together there to dish openly about the inept board members' lack of oversight and to propose positive solutions. Questions became constant. How could this contract be real?
After firing Stepp in October, board members would publicly pass the buck and refer to the "shock, dismay and distrust" ebbing from the very financial recklessness they approved back then: A minimum $186,000 yearly salary (with bonuses and benefits tagged on) with an $83,000 "signing bonus" to boot. And then some.
Charley Freeman, then the president of the school board, said in March that his opinion of the contract changed dramatically once the news hit the community, a convenient 180-degree turn: "I took the Gazette...and I said, 'This $83,000 piece needs to be rethought.' When I campaigned, I met a lot of people: They don't have that kind of money."
The whole mess has been rethought since, but eight months out there remains plenty of uncertain damage in the atmosphere. For instance, Stepp's promise that he'd repay the $83,000 has gone unfulfilled. A federal lawsuit looms. The board responsible for Stepp's outlandish contract just tried to pull another fast one with the treasurer's hefty compensation.
Freeman, who resigned from the board on March 26, tells Scene: "It's been a very challenging year. It's been better since I kept my mouth shut, and maybe it needs to stay that way."
Freeman's assertion notwithstanding, it was the details of Stepp's absurd contract that so rankled the community. For instance, among the marquee benefits was the full payment of back student loans at Ashland University ($172,000 for three degrees) and tuition for the MBA program at Case Western Reserve University ($94,000). And he received full reimbursements for vaccinations and a trip to China and Vietnam as part of his MBA program. No questions asked.
"Paying for the guy's [school loans] is the most absurd, ridiculous, outrageous thing I've heard in my entire life," James Simonelli, who occasionally substitute-teaches in the Medina City School District, says. "It's nonsensical." He's not alone in that critique.
The questionable news kept rolling. A special state audit was released in October that detailed some of the financial impropriety from July 2005 to March 2013. In sum, the state ordered Stepp to reimburse the district $4,121. That dollar figure came from all sorts of nonsense payments Stepp was running through accounts kept outside the district's purview. Stepp was buying flowers, gift cards, flight seat upgrades, extra nights in luxury hotels while traveling for educational conferences (with family in tow), etc.
Against the backdrop of Stepp's tenure in Medina, though, that's softball stuff. The question lingered: How could things escalate so quickly for years without a second look from the school board?
One answer — and there are many — involves the Medina County Schools' Educational Service Center (ESC). School districts across the county chip in funds toward the ESC, which maintains "shared services" for district use. Think school nurses or tutors. Need extra personnel? A cooperative purchase agreement, maybe? A Medina County school district can hire someone or purchase materials through the ESC and its funds, which are collected from individual district coffers.
But Stepp, as superintendent, got wise to the fact that there was little oversight for those funds. At the end of each year, there would always be a cash carryover balance. And that balance got really, really big for Medina City Schools relative to other districts. Stepp started jacking up the amount until hundreds of thousands of dollars were going into the ESC and away from the oversight of district officials like treasurer Jim Hudson (and Wally Gordon before him). Stepp, as the numbers show, could then use that money as he saw fit.
Records obtained from the Medina County Educational Services Center show a growing brazenness with the use of the carryover funds year over year. By the time Stepp reached the 2012-2013 school year, he was tapping those dollars with unprecedented zeal.
For instance, a Medina-based technology strategy outfit called DSP — sometimes referred to as DSP Solutions — first showed up during the 2009-2010 school year. They picked up $5,000 from the ESC fund that year, which later ballooned to tens of thousands of dollars in the ensuing years (all counted, $212,711.75 through the available records — plus an additional $46,571 in "encumbered funds" for the 2012-2013 school year). And that's on top of the $142,457 paid to DSP from the district's coffers from 2010 to present, according to records obtained through the Medina City Schools treasurer's office. Grand total: $401,739.75.
The hiccup here: Members of DSP Solutions' top brass include two of Stepp's neighbors in the Williamsburg Court/Sunset Drive cul-de-sac where he lives: Bob Thompson (who lives next door) and Glenn Mitchell. They and their private company came onboard just prior to Stepp canning former in-house technology director Dale McRitchie from the schools. Requests for McRitchie's personnel file were not returned to Scene by press time.
Out of those same ESC funds came expenditures for something called "The Growth Coach." That's a component of Medina resident Michael Rao's Rao Business Coaching company, which offers corporate/business development programming. The Growth Coach took home $29,600 from Stepp's ESC fund last school year alone.
Rao shares a slot on the United Way board with Stepp; the two are known pals, according to sources. And Stepp routinely went to former ESC treasurer Michelle McNeely with requests for reimbursement. An example, taken from a Post-It note attached to a receipt for vaccines: "Michelle, For the trip that is required for the program I am a part of at Case, I had to get the attached vaccines. I paid for them already and would like to process for reimbursement. Thanks, Randy." And a cool $260 was reimbursed to Stepp's wallet, just like that.
Because such numbers were insulated within ESC records books, past and present board members and Medina City Schools treasurers have glommed on to the plausible deniability front. And Stepp axed the assistant superintendent years ago, putting an end to a position that might have afforded a check on his reign.
Even now, no one at the school district has accepted accountability for the ESC expenditures. Or much of anything.
Ohio House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a down-home Medina Republican, pushed through legislation that closed the sorts of ESC loopholes Stepp had grown to love over the years. ESC cash carryovers will henceforth be represented in school district records books. In a year of setbacks, that's a rare legislative win for Medina taxpayers.
In 2006, Randolph Scott Stepp, salt-and-pepper goatee and all, was appointed as Medina City Schools superintendent to a seemingly robust sense of fanfare. He was coming off a stint as principal of Medina High School — 4,000-plus students, mind you — for a few years, and personnel records show that he was either liked or respected. Sometimes both. A natural leader with a business sense about him, recommendations would note.
"The school board did not do a due-diligence investigation into the exploration, qualifications and personality of the man they ultimately hired as superintendent," Simonelli contends.
Stepp had worked in Medina as a teacher and football coach from 1997 to 2000, heading south at that point to work as a principal in the Ashland City School District — his alma mater. But sources there say that his time in Ashland was pockmarked with administrative reprimands and questionable personal and financial dealings that would foreshadow his rule in Medina.
Returning to Medina City Schools in 2004, Stepp held court as one of the more powerful employees of the district as principal of MHS. His ascension to superintendent, of course, would cement that status.
"At that point [in 2006], I committed myself to students and to developing relationships within this community," Stepp said at a community forum in March 2013. Of course, by then his tenure had been shaded by outlandish contract language and fantastical benefits like full student loan payments. "What I think happened over the course of the last few years is I became so focused on finance and return on investment, that I started to apply that same thing to my contract from a business perspective."
That was part of Stepp's measured answer to a question relating to "shared sacrifice" and occasionally humongous bonus payments asked during a four-hour special board meeting on March 8 of this year. Mere weeks later, his last performance review would declare that he had not "embraced the concept of shared sacrifice with respect to financial compensation and expenditures."
Even the quickest glance across recent negotiations with the Medina City Teachers Association would show that shared sacrifice within Stepp's office is a nonsense phrase. Even after Stepp's latest contract came to light, the union agreed to a two-year salary freeze and an increase in insurance payments (17.5 percent to 20 percent).
The same day that the union voted to ratify that contract, Medina City Teachers Association president John Leatherman received copies of the student loan reimbursement checks. "I had to take that over to my teachers on that same day and share that information," Leatherman says. "That was the day we had a vote of no confidence [in the school board]. We still haven't removed that, because we have a couple remaining members who have promised to resign. We're waiting to see that occur." (Susan Vlcek and Karla Robinson, the board president, have both announced plans to resign in January 2014 and May 2014, respectively.)
The teachers' contract comes after a quarter of the teaching staff had been cut over recent years, along with drastic reductions in arts and physical education programs and extracurricular offerings.
By the time Stepp's performance was under review this year, he had already been placed on administrative leave and public outrage was clear. Justifiable or not, Stepp was in the crosshairs as the district's fall guy.
"There are places in a school district where you can run like a business, and there are places in a school district where you certainly cannot," Stepp said earlier this year. All the while, board oversight happily overslept.
There's a joke that runs around town about Stepp's financial abandon. Records show that he had been purchasing dozens of books with his district-issued credit card. Among the titles: Integrative Hypnosis: A Comprehensive Course in Change. Hypnosis: The only likely explanation for the board's glad-handing and rubber-stamping over the years.
On Oct. 24, the school board voted unanimously to terminate Stepp's contract. The board mailed a letter to Stepp's home on Nov. 21, listing 13 major reasons why he was let go. The letter contained nods to many facts that the board knew about well in advance of the actual termination.
Within the week of Stepp's firing, voters would take to the ballot and approve a 5.9-mill emergency levy. Under Stepp's watch, five levy issues were posted to the voters and none had passed. The November 2013 vote, approving the levy by a 16-percent margin, was a strong signal: With Stepp out, things will be different.
Board members Tom Cahalan and Doug Adamczyck — the "new guys" who replaced Charley Freeman and Robert Wilder after their resignations — were re-elected. Wilder had tendered his resignation Feb. 19 of this year, just a few weeks shy of the implosion.
Rounding out the school board, Robert Skidmore was selected to assume Bill Grenfell's seat in January (the latter having chosen not to run for office). With some fresh faces at the helm of the board and millions of new tax dollars set to flow forth, hope shines anew on the other side of the Stepp era.
"This is a sign of renewed prosperity and real economic growth," interim superintendent Dave Knight said Nov. 18. "Things are looking good at Medina, and I don't think we should lose sight of that."
Things are indeed looking good, and many would say that's because this is Medina. The schools have garnered excellent ratings for years. But the scandal develops anew around seemingly every corner.
On Nov. 13, Stepp updated his May 2013 federal lawsuit first filed against the school board for breach of contract. This time, he roped in Ohio auditor David Yost, whose office oversaw the special audit that led directly to his termination.
He criticized the method of the state audit, detailing audit manager William Ward's status as board member of adult literacy organization Project: Learn. That organization hired school board president Karla Robinson as executive director during the assemblage of the audit. Stepp, for what it's worth, also defended all uses of ESC and Medina City Schools funds. He asked Medina Common Pleas Judge Christopher Collier to stop the board's termination of his contract.
The timing of the suit and the contents within, much like everything in this tale, were utterly odd. One of the exhibits reveals a May 23 public records request in which Stepp sought email communication from seemingly everyone with even a passing connection to the school board. An assortment of residents and members of the press were wrangled into the request as Stepp attempted to track down all communication about him. Strangely, he misspelled the names of many of the people he included in the request.
As of press time, the state auditor's office is still working on yet another report about Stepp's financial transgressions. The U.S. Department of Education is likewise involved, taking a long look at those student loan payments.
The Nov. 18 school board meeting painted a picture that summed up 2013 quite well. The main agenda item involved approving a contract for treasurer Jim Hudson. [UPDATE Nov. 27: Hudson resigned from his position as treasurer on Nov. 26, after Scene's print deadline.]
Given the proximity to the levy's momentous passage, many in the community were irate at the thought of extending the contract of anyone close to the board. And to further corrode any pretense of transparency proffered by the likes of board president Karla Robinson, all requests to see the contract prior to the meeting were either ignored or denied.
To return briefly to March 2013, when the first spark of outrage shot across the bow of the district, board member Bill Grenfell told the community that future contracts would be handled with the utmost transparency: "I assure you...we will start to do this from this point forward...reaching out and getting help to negotiate those contracts and to publicize them in the community so we can win back your trust and support." Ho-hum, apparently.
Last week's meeting began with a 90-minute executive session, during which time the board fiddled with the contract and tempered the package to meet community demand. When Grenfell presented the contract later that night, he showed how there would be no increase in compensation for the treasurer, which is not true, as residents and reporters have pointed out in the days following the meeting. But Grenfell insisted that language and provisions had been cleared up to produce a sterling example of board negotiations.
The problem is, as public records show, the contract presented Nov. 18 was not the original contract. That one was set to offer thousands of dollars of additional benefits tied to Hudson's dual role as treasurer of the neighboring Cloverleaf School District, an always-odd element of his work duties. Original language also polished that off with some tidy overtime compensation ($47 perhour). It was only in that extended executive session that the board took the time to address community outrage.
As the meeting waned, however, Hudson himself requested that the contract be tabled until the Dec. 16 meeting, garnering an audible sigh of relief from the crowd.
So with the contract slated for an inevitable vote and the school board still faithfully clinging to business as usual, the frustrated audience of community members walked into the night. Fever-pitch grumbling ensued as mouths exhaled winter breaths across the parking lot. Official and informal investigations into the whole of this mess continue, and district residents are watching every move nowadays.
When the levy passed in the twilit hours of Nov. 5, Leatherman sent a message to the teachers. As he had on two other important occasions this year, he added a quote from OSU football coaching legend Woody Hayes: "You win with people." It's been a helpful refrain, an anchor for the maddening tides of this year's scandal.
"I think that's what we took from this," he says. "There were times when the chips were down. We couldn't believe that another scandal [was happening]. There are over 60 articles in the Gazette at this point. And you just kept thinking: Something else can't come up. But you know what? You win with people."
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