- Parker Perry Staff Writer
The Northwestern Board of Education spent more than $31,000 to investigate its superintendent over an allegation he was verbally aggressive and intimidating in the workplace, a Springfield News-Sun investigation found.
The board also paid Superintendent Jesse Steiner more than $25,000 during the two-month period he was barred from his job, according to school Treasurer Julie Gibson, who responded to a Springfield News-Sun record request.
More expenses are likely to come as a result of the investigation.
“I’m very disappointed,” Northwestern district resident Mark Sanders said. “If we have a slush fund like that, we need to look at our tax rates.”
The Springfield News-Sun reached out several times to Northwestern School Board President Andy Gundolf, who declined comment on behalf of the entire board. The Springfield News-Sun also contacted the four other board members: Russell Steele, Libby Hastings, Leigh Taylor and Kevin Macy, but none returned email messages.
Steiner also declined to comment.
The school board voted to allow Steiner to return to work Feb. 1 from paid leave and sent him a letter saying he violated board policy for the way he interacted with staff.
Steiner was informed on Nov. 26 that he shouldn’t come to work because an investigation was being launched by the board of education against him, according to former school board President Donna Myers.
Steiner was under investigation for “unprofessional conduct,” according to board statements, and was put on paid leave on Dec. 21.
“The board focused on Mr. Steiner’s alleged misconduct when interacting with others on the job and whether or not he was maintaining the high standards of professional conduct we expect from staff,” Gundolf said, speaking on behalf of the board at the time.
Steiner was accused of being verbally aggressive, intimidating and angry during his dealings with others on the job, according to a letter sent to him by the Northwestern Board of Education on Jan. 24.
The letter details the investigation done on the board’s behalf by Edward Ostrowski. Ostrowski interviewed more than 30 people during his inquiry, according to the letter sent to Steiner. He also received and reviewed public records from Steiner’s previous employers, according to the letter.
The district’s letter to Steiner says Ostrowski found it wasn’t the first time Steiner was accused of similar behavior.
In July 2013 while superintendent at Hicksville Schools, the board president there wrote he belittled staff in public, the letter says. “You show little interest in collaborating with the board or your staff … Often the staff feels bullied into doing things your way,” the letter to Steiner says.
While superintendent at Celina schools in December 2013, the letter says Steiner was viewed as “arrogant, unfriendly and abrasive.”
“It appears, Jesse, that Northwestern Local is experiencing more of the same negative perceptions that existed elsewhere,” the letter says. “As we have explained to you previously, we do not want those issues here at Northwestern Local.
“Our disappointment is growing, especially because we have made previous efforts to correct these conduct issues and our efforts have not produced adequate results,” the letter says.
The board won’t put up with further incidents, the letter states, and Steiner could be terminated if it continues.
Steiner also must complete a comprehensive mental health and competency examination, anger management counseling and leadership training, which will be at the district’s expense. He also must meet with the board members on a monthly basis to discuss and review conduct and progress, and refrain from any retaliation against individuals who participated in the investigation.
Cost of the investigation
Using public records requests and interviews, the Springfield News-Sun found the school district will pay thousands of dollars in costs for the process.
Northwestern Local Schools paid Ostrowski $17,577 for his investigation. Ostrowski couldn’t be reached for comment.
The district also paid $11,343 to Scott Scriven LLP, a Columbus-based law firm, for legal services during the investigation, Northwestern Treasurer Julie Gibson said.
The board also paid Northwestern High School Principal Lori Swafford an additional $100 a day to serve as acting superintendent during Steiner’s leave. That totaled $2,600 on top of her usual pay, Gibson said.
Taxpayers also will pay for Steiner to undergo a comprehensive mental examination, anger management counseling and leadership training. The cost for those items are unknown at this time, Gibson said, as those expenses are yet to occur.
The cost so far of the investigation, legal services and salaries for Steiner and Swafford totals more than $56,000.
The starting salary for a teacher at Northwestern Local is a little more than $36,000.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Steiner’s friend and supporter Jay Skrabacz, also a resident in the Northwestern district. “I feel this is not an appropriate way to spend tax dollars.”
The conflict could have been taken care of with a meeting between Steiner and the affected employees, Skrabacz said, and a lot of money could have been saved.
The finding letter says Steiner was informed by the board three times, including as recently as June, that “raising (his) voice to administrators and other staff members” would not be tolerated.
Steiner has many supporters in the community, Skrabacz said, and residents want to know why board members decided to spend thousands of dollars to investigate these allegations.
Taylor and Macy weren’t on the board when the investigation started. Myers, who is no longer on the board, was the board president when it was launched.
“The results proved there was an issue,” Myers said.
She declined further comment.
Northwestern Teachers Association President Denise Hermetz declined to comment on behalf of the union.
This incident isn’t the first time Northwestern Local Schools has paid a superintendent to not come to work.
Former Northwestern Superintendent Tony Orr was told not to report to work starting in late May 2015 until his contract ended in July and he left to lead Hamilton City Schools. No public allegations of misconduct were made against Orr. He and the board came to a transition agreement, Orr said.
“The Northwestern Board of Education and I agreed to a transition agreement that allowed me to begin the process to work for Hamilton City Schools while Northwestern began its search for its superintendent,” Orr said in an email this week.
He declined further comment.
Orr made about $9,300 a month, more than $18,000 over the two-month period. The district also paid an interim superintendent $400 a day.
How the district handles its investigations and its finances is up to the local board of education, Ohio School Board Association Senior Staff Attorney Van Keating said.
“School district investigations are strictly local issues that the district’s board of education is responsible for,” Keating said.
The investigation has been a terrible way to spend tax dollars, German Twp. Trustee and longtime Northwestern resident Charlie Metzger said.
“The way we have to pay taxes anymore, I just think that’s not a way that we should be spending our money to handle grievances,” Metzger said.
Northwestern graduate Laura Gordon said she was surprised by the expenses.
“They need to be more focused on what they do and spend for the children,” she said.
Sanders said he was unhappy that the board didn’t disclose more information to the public while the investigation was going on and said the district still hasn’t released detailed information of the allegations.
The board should be more careful how it spends public money, Northwestern resident John Butts said.
“It makes me think there is something wrong with our school system and our board, Butts said.
The school district has raised taxes to build new schools, Butts said. He also has an issue with Steiner being paid while away from the job, he said.
“It is absolutely wrong for them to pay him to not come to work. I find that appalling,” he said. “What kind of job gives money for doing nothing?”