Some parents whose opposition helped scuttle a plan to rename Abington Senior High School after Wall Street billionaire Stephen Schwarzman are now worried that the district is moving too quickly on a new deal for the Blackstone CEO’s $25 million gift.
But School Board President Raymond McGarry insists the panel will move ahead with Tuesday’s scheduled vote on the agreement – unveiled at its April 10 meeting, the same time it rescinded the first pact – and doesn’t agree with parents’ concerns about moving too fast.
“The new agreement is very problematic,” said Gabrielle Sellei, a lawyer and mother of two Abington students, who was a vocal opponent of the abandoned plan to rename the school Abington Schwarzman High School.
Sellei and others say the new agreement — which drops the name change and some other demands, such as naming parts of the school after Schwarzman’s brothers — is too vaguely worded. They also want more discussion about the structure of the new Foundation for Abington School District that was created to receive the money.
“My concern is that it’s like a lot of things in the whole process – it’s preordained already,” said David Judge, father of three students. “They provided us with the information, they’re going to allow us to ask questions, but they’re already keyed up to approve it.”
This week, Sellei wrote to McGarry urging a postponement of Tuesday’s vote and expanding the time to comment on the revised agreement with Schwarzman, a 1965 Abington grad. The money will be used to renovate the high school and add a science and technology wing that will bear the executive’s name.
But McGarry said Friday that the email from Sellei was the only formal request he had received for a delay and that he saw no need for additional time.
“I said that this would be the plan, and I owe it to the public to stick to my word,” he said, adding that the public will have ample opportunity on Tuesday to raise concerns and try to persuade board members to postpone the vote.
Controversy has wracked the nearly 8,000-student Montgomery County district since the gift was announced in February and hailed as a model for how private philanthropy could aid public schools in an era of tight budgets.
Community opposition spiked in March when the board voted, with virtually no advance notice, to rename the high school for Schwarzman and to accept the billionaire’s gift without making public the terms of its agreement with him.
The ensuing uproar caused Abington Superintendent Amy Sichel to announce that Schwarzman had agreed to abandon the renaming, and to issue a letter of apology for the way it was handled. The district waited nearly two more weeks to release the initial contract with the donor, which had also called for a portrait of Schwarzman to be prominently displayed in the high school, his name to be placed at six building entrances, tributes to his twin brothers to be installed, and oversight of the school’s computer technology curriculum to be given to him.
Sellei and others say they’re worried that the new deal is too open-ended.
She said, “There’s a lot that’s not explicit anymore. There’s a lot of discretion and wiggle room in the way this agreement was drafted.”
She and other critics said there’s nothing in the deal that would prevent some of the perks – like the portrait or the extensive displays of Schwarzman’s name – from returning. They also questioned why the new agreement says the school will be named Abington Senior High School “in perpetuity” – meaning the district wouldn’t be able to honor some future civic hero.
“When I read the section about the naming rights, I read it like it is almost punitive,” Judge said. “’If I’m not going to have my name on the school … nobody else gets their name on it.’”
Others, like Tamar Kleiman, a mother of two, questioned why the agreement includes language about computer coding and technology classes. “The school board said we were going to make these curriculum changes anyway,” she said. “Well, I don’t know that, and why does a third party have any input into those decisions?”
Tim Shaw, who has two sons in the school, said the community needs more time to study this arrangement after the botched handling of the first pact. “If they were to delay the vote, that would be great, to give more time to working parents to figure out exactly what’s there,” he said. “More discussion with the board would be great.”
McGarry said, “I think we’ve already shown we’ve listened to the public. We’ve already changed the pledge agreement because we’ve listened to the public.”
As an attorney, Sellei said, she has concerns about the structure of the new foundation, which school leaders set up in 2017 because they believed their existing philanthropy wasn’t structured to handle such a large gift. She said residents are getting conflicting information about how many people will sit on the foundation’s board and whom they will be.
McGarry said the foundation will meet on May 1 and plans to vote on adding two members to its existing five, which are himself, Sichel, the district’s business manager, its solicitor, and a member of the community, Gail A. Wilheimer, a Montgomery County judge and Abington parent. (Weilheimer’s husband, Larry, is vice president and general counsel of Philadelphia Media Network, parent company of the Inquirer and Daily News.) The additions would be the school board vice president and another community member.
Samantha Bromley echoed other parents, saying the matter has become “a trust issue” after the board’s initial mishandling. Bromley also said she appreciates Schwarzman’s gift and was OK with the renaming until a conversation with her 13-year-old daughter changed her mind.
Said Bromley: “She said, ‘I don’t get it — you always tell us when you do something nice for someone, you shouldn’t expect anything in return.’”