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.