Judge to decide whether dissertation falls under Right to Know Law

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A woman seeking to review the doctoral dissertation of the Fox Chapel Area School District superintendent will have to wait before learning if the document falls within Pennsylvania's Right to Know law.

Following a hearing Wednesday morning, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Terrence O'Brien asked the parties to submit briefs on the issue before he issues a ruling.

Superintendent Anne Stephens is scheduled to retire in December. She joined the district in January 2006.

Patricia Weaver, who lives in the district, asked to review Ms. Stephens' dissertation in June after she learned that the superintendent's doctoral degree was issued by LaSalle University in Mandeville, La. The unaccredited school was raided in 1996 by the FBI, which alleged it was a diploma mill.

The founder pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion.

After Ms. Weaver's request was denied by the school district, she appealed to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, which ruled that the district did not provide sufficient evidence to show it was not in possession of the dissertation.

School solicitor Paul Giuffre appealed that decision by filing a petition for review in Common Pleas Court.

Ms. Weaver argued that Ms. Stephens is a public figure, and that as such she should be required to share her dissertation.

Earlier this week, Ms. Stephens allowed a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter to review the document, which included a 43-page paper and a 140-page manual for school administrators.

Ms. Weaver told Judge O'Brien that some school board members also have read it, and Ms. Stephens showed it to the reporter in her district office.

Therefore, she argued, the public has a right to review it.

"Taxpayers have the right to verify her claim," she said. "If the institution is a fraud, it's possible the degree is a fraud."

And if that's the case, that means that Ms. Stephens does not meet the posted job qualifications to be Fox Chapel's superintendent, Ms. Weaver said.

But Judge O'Brien stopped that argument.

"This isn't really relevant to the issue," he said. "Regardless of the quality of the university the superintendent attended, the issue is whether the school district possesses the dissertation."

Mr. Giuffre said it does not.

"The district never had possession of it at the time of the hire," he said. "The fact she brought it on district property at some time does not make it a public record under the Right to Know Law."

Ms. Weaver has a 12-year-old daughter, who this summer chose to switch from Fox Chapel to a private Christian school.

"Our expectations are high. I want the best education you can provide, but the ethics, morals, integrity and honor are values that are far more important," she said.

She is also critical of The Tri-State Area School Study Council at the University of Pittsburgh, which was paid $19,000 to head the superintendent search in 2005 when Ms. Stephens was hired.

Among the requirements of the contract, the council was supposed to check candidates' references and do a literature search.

"They should have done their job," Ms. Weaver said.

education - neigh_north

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published October 9, 2013 8:44 PM


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