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New Dist. 203 superintendent defends educational background
By Melissa Jenco | Daily Herald Staff

Mark Mitrovich


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/7/2009 12:03 AM

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The credentials of Naperville Unit District 203's next superintendent are being called into question by critics just days after he was hired.

Mark Mitrovich, scheduled to take the helm of one of the state's largest school systems July 1, holds a doctorate from the University of Santa Barbara, but the institution is not nationally accredited. Readers responding online to the news of his hiring criticized it as a result.

Both Mitrovich and the search firm that recommended him say the degree is legitimate and the issue will not affect his ability to lead Naperville schools.

Mitrovich, co-founder and chief education officer for EdGate in Gig Harbor, Wash., was hired Monday to replace retiring Superintendent Alan Leis.

His resume boasts 30 years in education, including a stint as superintendent of Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor.

He holds a doctorate in education administration from the now defunct University of Santa Barbara.

Ken Stokes, a former board member at the university and now its custodian of records, confirmed the school was not nationally accredited but said it was approved by the California Department of Education and its private postsecondary bureau as a degree-granting institution.

"It's a small school but a good-quality school, so I feel bad when people say it was a diploma mill and he didn't do anything," Stokes said. "That is unfair to Mark. He completed a good, rigorous program."

Mitrovich was a student at the university from 1991 to 1993 and completed 60 credit hours, including his dissertation and hours he transferred from Washington State University. Some of the coursework was completed online and some was done during two summers on campus.

He said he was drawn to the school by the reputation and quality of its instructors, some of whom - including the University of Santa Barbara's founder - had come from the University of California system. He also was drawn to the opportunity to complete some of the coursework while in Washington state.

He was told at the time that the university was working toward accreditation and once it was achieved it would apply retroactively to those in the program. He said he has always listed the university with the rest of his credentials and it has never been brought up as a problem.

"For me, the experience has always been about learning," he said Friday. "As an educator, whether I was operating in the public sector or the private sector, what I was learning and who I was learning it from was the critical thing for me.

"It may not have been the traditional format or setting because I've learned a lot from people who didn't have a Ph.D. after their name. I guess I'm at a point in my life with what I've done in my work, not only in this country but internationally, that I know the quality of what I've done, the quality of the people I associate with and the quality of work I want to do in the future. None of that will be, or has been, impacted by whether the University of Santa Barbara had the ... accreditation."

Mitrovich also has superintendent's credentials from Washington State University, a master's in education from Eastern Washington University and a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Washington.

In 1991 he was named Washington state's Principal of the Year and in 1998 won the state's Superintendent of the Year honors.

District 203 school board President Suzyn Price directed questions about Mitrovich to Hank Gmitro, an associate with Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the search firm the district employed to help it find a new superintendent.

Gmitro said the firm was aware of what school Mitrovich attended and learned during a routine check several days ago that it was not accredited. He was unsure of whether the firm learned before or after the board approved hiring the new leader and said it's typical to focus discussions with candidates more on their experiences.

Gmitro said there is no requirement to hold a doctorate at all in order to be a superintendent. He believes the board made a good selection in Mitrovich, who has both an education and business background.

"I think he brings a great skill set for what they're looking for," he said. "He has experience as a high school principal, a superintendent, and was highly successful in both of those situations."

But the flap also has brought some to question the secrecy behind the hiring process.

The school board interviewed five of the top 40 candidates who applied, and upon selecting Mitrovich as its top choice, two board members made a trip to Washington to speak with his former colleagues.

The board did not release the names of any of its five finalists and did not introduce Mitrovich as its selection until Feb. 2, when it unanimously voted to hire him.

Mitrovich said Friday he would not have minded a more open process and has previously had to answer questions from the public during the hiring process in another district. But he said he feels the District 203 board and search firm did an exceptional job gathering input from the community and using that in the interview process.

Gmitro said it is typical for candidates' names not to be released during the process because some may not have told their current districts they were interviewing and if their names were publicized there may be highly qualified candidates who would not apply.

Mitrovich, 63, begins his new post July 1. He has signed a three-year contract with the district with a starting annual salary of $203,000.

Degree: Some questioning selection process