Doctorate furor continues for Fox Chapel Area School District superintendent

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Legal arguments over whether Fox Chapel Area School District superintendent Anne Stephens must turn her dissertation over to a resident will be made Wednesday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Patricia Weaver of Fox Chapel requested a copy in June after it was disclosed that Ms. Stephens' doctoral degree came from LaSalle University in Mandeville, La., an unaccredited school that was raided in 1996 by the FBI, which claimed it was a diploma mill. Its founder pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion.

At the time of the disclosure, Ms. Stephens acknowledged LaSalle was unaccredited but said she did legitimate coursework through correspondence and wrote a dissertation on the topic of how prepared administrators are for their duties.

"I wanted to see proof that she did all of the work. I wanted to see it and hold her accountable for her statements," Ms. Weaver said.

Ms. Stephens allowed the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to review her dissertation this week. Unlike those required for doctoral programs at institutions such as at the University of Pittsburgh, Ms. Stephens' dissertation does not contain a committee signature page, listing the names of the doctorate-holding experts to whom she presented and defended her work, and it doesn't list the name of an adviser.

Ms. Stephens said she defended her dissertation by telephone and did not immediately remember the names of those who reviewed her work.

The dissertation is in two parts -- a 43-page paper that outlines the problems facing administrators, information Ms. Stephens said she gathered by sending out 100 questionnaires to educators in Ohio and by reading research material, and a 140-page manual Ms. Stephens wrote to provide administrators with solutions to some of those problems.

The paper does not include numbered citations but does provide references to other researchers' work. But not all of those researchers and references to their work are listed in the alphabetical bibliography at the end of the paper. Ms. Stephens said she did not know why they weren't listed.

She said the recommendations in the manual came from her own experience and some best practices that she had heard of from other districts. Among the recommendations were for administrators to check teacher certifications and make sure they are current, serve sweet rolls at early morning meetings and fresh fruit for after-school meetings with staff, and to include lunch prices in student teacher handbooks.

While the paper and project do not meet the rigorous research requirements of a traditional Ph.D. program, Ms. Stephens pointed to the dissertation manual provided by LaSalle to show that it met the requirements of that program.

The issue arose in May after some residents asked the school board to take action against Ms. Stephens, who was hired in October 2005. Ms. Weaver said the group believes Ms. Stephens should not be able to collect her full pension as a superintendent because she does not have a doctorate from an accredited university.

The board backed Ms. Stephens, saying that although the district requires its superintendent hold a doctoral degree, its policy does not explicitly call for a degree from an accredited university.

Ms. Weaver on June 3 emailed Ms. Stephens, asking for a copy of the dissertation. Ms. Stephens invited her to the superintendent's office for a meeting, but Ms. Weaver repeated her request for a copy of the dissertation.

The district on June 6 said the dissertation was not a public record because it was not created, received or retained by the district, criteria set for public records under the state's Right to Know Law.

Ms. Weaver appealed to the Office of Open Records.

On July 19, the state Office of Open Records ruled that the district did not provide sufficient evidence that it did not possess the dissertation and granted Ms. Weaver her appeal. District solicitor Paul Giuffre then filed a petition for judicial review of the ruling in Common Pleas Court.

Ms. Stephens said she is continuing with the judicial review of the Office of Open Records ruling "for the school district's protection."

Mr. Giuffre said the district is "taking a stand against it having to go out and obtain documents that are not in our possession."

He said there are more than 700 district employees who could be affected. "I don't want to have to go to any of those 700 and have to ask for any document that is in their personal possession and not a district record.

"Today it's Dr. Stephens' dissertation. Tomorrow it could be Johnny's fourth-grade teacher's senior thesis," Mr. Giuffre said.

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM


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