One of the new principals in the North Hills School District boasts a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh -- no small accomplishment for a 27-year-old with several years of full-time teaching experience.
But after recent events, Dr. Joseph W. Pasquerilla might be reluctant to tout his status as a faculty member with another institution: Canyon College, an online entity that is widely viewed as disreputable.
Courses taught by Dr. Pasquerilla to fellow teachers at his old workplace, the West Middlesex Area School District in Mercer County, have led to problems there and prompted a meeting with his new boss to discuss the Canyon College situation.
The Idaho-based institution is not recognized by Idaho, Pennsylvania, the U.S. Department of Education or any respected accreditation agency.
"They are quite a well-known diploma mill," said Alan Contreras, an expert on the subject and director of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization.
Degrees from Canyon College are essentially worthless in Pennsylvania. A state Department of Education official said the institution is not authorized to operate in Pennsylvania, and its programs and courses are not approved.
"We discussed with him very clearly that at North Hills, if one of our staff members were to partake in any of the offerings at Canyon, it would not be recognized at North Hills," said district spokeswoman Tina Vojtko. "We don't see the affiliation being necessarily relevant here at North Hills."
Officials at Canyon College could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Pasquerilla, who earned his master's degree at Youngstown State University, said he joined Canyon College with noble intentions -- to help teachers at his old district obtain master's degrees at an affordable price and with a curriculum he could assemble.
Under the West Middlesex contract, teachers with master's degrees can earn an extra $2,400 per year.
Dr. Pasquerilla acknowledged he should have sought more information before accepting a contract to teach courses for a fee of $250 per student. He said he did not know a master's degree from the school would not be valid in the state, he did not realize Canyon was not authorized to operate in its home state, and he did not realize the entity was not properly accredited.
"I guess I should have asked more questions," Dr. Pasquerilla, principal of Northway Elementary School, said recently. "Maybe there was some misinformation brought to us by them."
Dr. Pasquerilla's situation is a cautionary tale illustrating the difficulty -- even for people with a doctorate -- in sorting out reputable schools from diploma mills, accredited institutions from those that offer bogus degrees.
"If someone is taking course work to get a degree, they need to do their homework to ensure it is an accredited, legitimate degree-granting institution. Otherwise, they may end up spending money and doing work for what ultimately could be a meaningless degree," Pennsylvania education department spokesman Michael Race said.
Despite the drama in West Middlesex, Dr. Pasquerilla enjoys the support of the North Hills board president.
"I don't know anything about Canyon College and quite honestly I don't really care. What I'm looking for is somebody who can shoot the lights out for the North Hills School District," Jeffrey A. Meyer said.
"We hired a guy to do a job as an administrator. Based on the feedback that we've received from the people who know him best in his previous district, we've received rave reviews."
But Dr. Pasquerilla still needs to sort out for himself whether he will continue to teach for Canyon, something he is not ready to abandon, despite the questions that have arisen.
"Based upon what I know now, I would need to reconnect and re-evaluate the situation with Canyon College," Dr. Pasquerilla said. "I have a commitment to the staff at West Middlesex.''
As for that district, where Dr. Pasquerilla passed out fliers advertising his courses, it has its own problems.
At least 11 teachers studied under Dr. Pasquerilla and his former colleague, math teacher Mark Hogue.
Five of them have successfully sought tuition reimbursement as provided under their contract. The district has paid them $12,000 in taxpayer money, covering the bulk of what they paid Canyon College.
But since concerns have cropped up, the district has put a stop on payments to six other teachers until its solicitor can study the matter.
Dr. Pasquerilla said he found Canyon College on the Internet and was attracted to its promise of allowing him to craft his own curriculum and offer it to peers at a reasonable price.
"We just were trying to do something that was good for the district," Dr. Pasquerilla said. "I had all the right intentions in mind, and that is to help educators become better educators"
His plan blew up when school board members began questioning the reimbursements and asking pointed questions about Canyon College.
"It just didn't seem right," West Middlesex board President Thomas J. Hubert said.
Mr. Hubert's hunch was borne out, and not only in Pennsylvania.
"There's no legal basis for the claim this is a legitimate degree," Oregon's Mr. Contreras said of Canyon College. "The entity itself has no legal authority to issue degrees. It would be like saying I did a bunch of course work for Wal-Mart and they gave me a degree."
Mr. Contreras claims that Canyon has twice violated an agreement to warn Oregon residents interested in its programs that they cannot legally use a Canyon degree in the state.
Idaho is trying to get Canyon to register with the state, but those efforts have so far failed.
"We do not recognize them. We do not recognize the degrees or certificates they may grant, and essentially it's 'buyer beware,' " said Mark Browning, spokesman for the Idaho State Board of Education.
Idaho law states a school must be accredited by an agency recognized by the state or federal government.
Canyon College states on its Web site that it is accredited by The American Naturopathic Medical Accreditation Board and The Association for Innovation in Distance Education.
The naturopathic group's credentials are questioned by Karen Howard, executive director of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
"There's no indication this is a legitimate accrediting organization," Ms. Howard said.
As for the other agency, Jan Riggs, a spokeswoman for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said neither her group nor the U.S. Department of Education recognizes it.
At West Middlesex, Superintendent Alan J. Baldarelli said he does not plan to approve future requests for tuition reimbursement at Canyon College, something that seems to be in sync with the wishes of his board president, Mr. Hubert.
"The taxpayers deserve a little bit more for their money," Mr. Hubert said.
Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1962.