Area officials weigh in on diploma mill matter

Monmouth County school administrators’ doctorates at issue


While the N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE) says it can do nothing to stop educators from obtaining degrees from “diploma mills” on the taxpayers’ dime, officials from Middlesex County school districts say it is a practice they do not tolerate.

The NJDOE released a report on the matter last week, after a controversy arose surrounding the superintendent and two other administrators in the Freehold Regional High School District, who had received doctoral degrees from an online university that many argue was not properly accredited.

Superintendent of Schools James Wasser, Assistant Superintendent Donna Evangelista and retired Assistant Schools Superintendent Frank Tanzini were brought into the spotlight by recent news reports for having obtained their doctorate degrees from Breyer State University, which states on its Web site that it is “not accredited by an accreditation agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education.”

Instead, the school is accredited by the Association for Innovation in Distance Education, a private organization that has only Breyer, which was formerly based in Alabama, and Canyon College in Carmichael, Calif., listed as accredited schools. Greater Media Newspapers was unable to reach the Web site for the Association for Innovation in Distance Education, except through the Breyer State University Web site.

All three administrators were given a $2,500 pay increase for receiving their doctorate, and the district paid $8,700 in tuition costs to the university.

District Board of Education attorney Lawrence Schwartz denied that Breyer is a diploma mill, and said the matter of the degrees in question was “not a significant legal issue” at the board’s July 28 meeting in Englishtown.

Both Schwartz and Wasser pointed out that Breyer was fully licensed in Alabama at the time Wasser obtained his degree. In a July 14 press release from the Alabama Community College System Department of Postsecondary Education, Breyer State was declared an “apparent diploma mill,” and its operating license was not renewed.

Violations cited on the part of the school included conferring honorary doctorates on individuals based on life and work experience, a one-time application fee, and a monetary contribution to the institution, according to the press release.

Breyer State also offered a self-designed degree program, which allows the creation of a curriculum based on mentoring.

The school’s Web site now lists a Los Angeles address. It also states, “Breyer State University is not a state-specific university and not a state university.”

Wasser’s contract, which ends in 2011, does not specify that a degree must come from a federally accredited school, according to Schwartz. In addition, there is no law in New Jersey requiring a degree from any particularly accredited school for K- 12 employees, he said.

There are, however, state regulations regarding phony degrees, and those from institutions that are not properly accredited. According to the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, it is unlawful to issue or obtain a degree with deceptive intent, or to use or attempt to use such a degree for employment purposes. In addition, it is unlawful to use letter designation of degrees after one’s name if a degree was not obtained through an appropriate accrediting agency, the law states.

Violators of the statutes are subject to a $1,000 fine for each offense.

After receiving citizen complaints, both the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance of the New Jersey Department of Education and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office are conducting investigations into the matter.

Wasser claimed ignorance on the issue of accreditation, and said his only intention in obtaining the doctorate was to improve his job performance and make a positive impact on the lives of young people.

While some school officials praised Wasser’s work in the district and otherwise spoke in support of him at the meeting, some members of the public took issue with the degrees. A concern raised by more than one resident involved in the cost paid by taxpayers.

“We’re not talking about $45,000 or $50,000,” Schwartz said.

Regardless of the dollar amount, some of those in attendance made it clear that they did not want to foot the bill for schooling that did not meet with standards set by the state. The issue of how the tuition reimbursement was handled was also brought to light.

Though the board was advised by Schwartz not to speak on the issue, board member Katie Goon of Marlboro said the board must ensure that the district does not repeat the practice of paying tuition directly to a school, as was the case with Breyer. Typically, employees are required to pay the tuition initially, and then have it reimbursed by their employer upon providing proof of successful completion of coursework.

Despite public outcry, none of the administrators have been required to pay back money gleaned from their raises or tuition.

Both Schwartz and Wasser pointed out that doctoral degrees are not required of school superintendents.

Officials say they are vigilant

Monroe Township School Board President Amy Antelis said while there may be no higher state authority enforcing proper accreditation for school employees, the district itself has its own regulations, and keeps a close eye on such matters.

“Luckily, we’re very good here in Monroe,” Antelis said. “We’re very diligent.”

According to Antelis, the district has a list of colleges and universities accredited by the NJDOE that applies to both teachers and administrators. During the most recent teachers’ contract negotiations, the issue of tuition reimbursement came up, and district officials established that in order for reimbursement to occur, a school must be “accredited by an accrediting agency that has been approved by the United States Department of Education,” Antelis said.

“We always double-check,” Antelis said. “We’re very thorough here.”

The school district is conducting a superintendent search through the New Jersey School Boards Association, because former Superintendent Ralph Ferrie, who held a doctoral degree, resigned June 30. Antelis said the district always uses professionals to conduct such searches, and they always look into applicants’ educational backgrounds.

Spotswood Board of Education President Richard O’ Brien expressed similar sentiments.

“I know it not to be an issue in our district,” O’Brien said.

District Superintendent of Schools John Krewer attended Northern Illinois University and holds a doctorate, O’Brien said. Employed by the district for three years, Krewer has a positive record, he noted.

“He’s a great superintendent,” O’Brien said.

In terms of school principals, three out of four of the district’s school heads have been employed by the school system for about 25 years, he said. In light of the recent controversy, O’Brien said the board will heighten measures to ensure the validity of educators’ degrees.

“We’ll certainly make it a part of the process to check their educational résumé,” O’Brien said.

Old Bridge Superintendent of Schools Simon Bosco, who earned his doctorate at Rutgers University, said his district takes stringent measures to check into educational backgrounds.

“We’ve been way ahead of this situation for a long time,” Bosco said.

In the case of both potential employees and tuition reimbursement for district employees, Bosco said a two-pronged approach is used. First, officials look to the NJDOE to ensure that a school is properly accredited, then they go to the school in question to check the validity of the accrediting agency.

According to Bosco, there have been instances when educational credits were not granted to those who did not attend properly accredited schools. About 15 years ago, the district took money away from employees who, while not attempting to commit fraud, attended schools that were not NJDOE approved.

Bosco declined to offer his own view of the situation in the Freehold Regional High School District, which is the largest high school district in New Jersey, but pointed out that many reputable colleges and universities offer legitimate degree programs that can be completed online.

“Earning an advanced degree is, or should be, a rigorous process, and I think that education is changing because of technology, and I think it is important for school districts — not just for school districts, but for everyone — to understand just what is acceptable,” Bosco said.

According to Bosco, Old Bridge school officials were vigilant about ensuring the validity of educational credentials even before diploma mills became an online phenomenon. Before that time, such organizations offered several-hour courses resulting in degrees and certifications.

“Here in Old Bridge, it’s been tightly monitored for many years,” Bosco said.

Municipal employees

The issue of diploma mills or other unaccredited schools is not exclusive to school districts. In 2005, a retired South River police lieutenant filed a lawsuit alleging that borough officials promoted two officers who obtained what he said were bogus degrees. The officer eventually settled with the borough, receiving retroactive pay.

The lawsuit stated that in 2003 the borough promoted two officers who had obtained degrees from Rochville University, a fraudulent Internet diploma mill. The borough considered those degrees to be legitimate and awarded the men points for the degrees during the promotional process. Like Breyer State University, Rochville was not accredited by state or federal governing bodies.

Old Bridge Mayor Jim Phillips said he has never encountered such an instance in the township, but the review process for the educational background of township employees is thorough.

“In the times that we’ve hired people who are required to have professional degrees, we’ve looked into it to ensure that they have the professional degrees,” Phillips said.

He cited township officials who are required to have certifications from the state, such as Chief Financial Officer Himanshu Shah, Township Engineer Jim Cleary and Township Planner Sam Rizzo, saying all of their credentials were verified prior to becoming municipal employees. He also said the police department looks into employees’ college credits before awarding points.