In long battle over shaky degrees, taxpayers suffer

Coda • GREG BEAN

The interminable dispute in the Freehold Regional High School District over administrators and teachers who got ginned-up degrees from an unaccredited and highly suspicious online diploma mill just won’t go away.

Regular readers know the saga of the tale’s most highly visible player, FRHSD Superintendent of Schools James Wasser, who got his doctoral degree from Breyer State University, immediately made everyone start calling him Dr. Wasser and got a bump in salary as a result of his latest academic “achievement.”

But Wasser, whose $200,000 contract runs out in 2011, wasn’t the only administrator or teacher in the FRHSD who got his or her advanced degree from Breyer State, started calling themselves “doctor” or some such and got a pay hike for their troubles. In total, there were five: Wasser, Assistant Superintendent Donna Evangelista, former Assistant Superintendent Frank J. Tanzini, teacher Cheryl Lanza and the subject of today’s discussion.

Let’s meet Lorraine Taddei-Graef, who was conferred with the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Education, Curriculum and Assessment from Breyer State in 2006, and like the others, took the pay boost, which she has undoubtedly been enjoying since.

According to a story by reporter Rebecca Morton in Greater Media Newspapers’ publication the News Transcript, the lady is a tenured employee and a member of the child study team at Freehold Township High School.

For Taddei-Graef, it looked like the wheels were starting to come off when the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education deemed that the degrees were invalid, since this state doesn’t recognize Breyer State. After that, the FRHSD board told her that she could no longer call herself Dr. Taddei Graef. Then, they took away the pay raise, which amounted to about $1,500 a year.

That would make perfect sense in a perfect world, but this isn’t a perfect world. It’s more like the place Alice found herself exploring after she fell down the rabbit hole.

Far from expressing any public shame or remorse about the place where she got her degree, Taddei-Graef took the all-American route. Instead of keeping a low profile and just waiting for the uproar and public outrage to go away, she filed a lawsuit against the FRHSD.

Her contention is that when she started working toward her degree at Breyer State, several other bigwigs in the district were doing the same thing. The reasoning apparently is that if the boss is doing it, it must be OK. Not only did she complete her coursework, she contends, she wrote a real dissertation (“The Search for a Curriculum to Appropriately Educate All Students, Leaving No Child Behind”). She says she spent 1,000 hours researching her topic before she enrolled in Breyer State and another 1,000 hours researching and writing the thing before she was awarded the degree.

Ergo: since she spent a bunch of time on it, the tome must have been valid.

She not only wants the FRHSD to let her call herself Dr. Taddei- Graef again, she wants the money back, saying that by taking those things away, the district violated her union’s collective bargaining agreement.

The district says it’s going to fight her claim tooth and nail, and you might think winning the suit would be a slam-dunk.

But I’m not so sure.

Wasser, Taddei-Graef and the others had to know, or at least suspect, that the place they were getting their advanced degrees from was a little shaky. To think otherwise defies all logic and insults the intelligence these folks must have as high-level educators.

They were not, however, doing anything that was illegal, or even prohibited by the district or the state, at that time.

It was only after the fact — when questions about Wasser’s credentials came to light in the public arena — that people started stripping them of honorific titles and pay raises.

The folks who should have stopped those questionable pay boosts, etc., at the get-go — the FRHSD school board — were simply asleep at the switch. They apparently just took the word of Wasser et. al that everything was copacetic and didn’t investigate the facts beyond the end of their elected noses.

That’s where the most blame lies in this mess, if you ask me. And as usual, the people who are gonna get stuck with the fallout and the bills are the district’s taxpayers.

Attorneys for the FRHSD may wind up winning this suit in court, but history tells us it’s just as likely that they’ll eventually make some kind of compromise. So taxpayers may get stuck with the cost of that, whatever that cost is.

They’ll also get stuck with the cost of the legal bills in this case, as well as any others that have already amassed and may eventually arise out of this miasma.

There’s no way to alleviate that pain for FRHSD taxpayers, but there’s a simple way to keep it from happening in the future.

That’s for the state Commission on Higher Education and every individual district in the state to make a new rule tomorrow and make sure it’s incorporated the next time contracts are negotiated with the unions: From this day forward we will not accept degrees from institutions that are not fully accredited in their own home states and whose accreditation is not recognized by the state of New Jersey. Any administrator, educator or staff member who attempts to profit in any way — professionally or financially — by attempting to use a degree from such an institution for gain will be terminated from employment immediately.

See, that wouldn’t be so hard, now would it?

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.