The Abington school board voted Tuesday to accept a $25 million gift from private-equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman that had caused deep division within the Montgomery County district, even as it fielded last-minute complaints from stakeholders at a meeting that dragged late into the evening.
After almost three hours of public comment and school officials’ explanation of the structure of a foundation that was created to accept the money, the board voted 8 to 1 to approve the pledge agreement for the donation, believed to the largest given to a single public school. Daniel Kaye, the lone dissenter, raised a motion to delay the vote, but did not get a second.
Board members launched the meeting with an effort to assure parents and other community members that there will be transparency surrounding the implementation of the donation from the Blackstone Group CEO, such as progress reports on a new computer and technology curriculum.
Abington school board president Raymond McGarry told attendees that semiannual reports that Schwarzman had requested on the curriculum changes will also be made available to the public.
“When you go to somebody and ask for money, they want to see what you’re going to do with the money,” McGarry said.
The board moved ahead to accept the Schwarzman gift, and the conditions attached to it, despite complaints from some parents who want more time to review and debate the terms of the deal as well as the structure of a nonprofit foundation created to accept the donation.
“Based on the last meeting, trust is now a major issue,” said one parent, Samantha Bromley, who peppered the board with questions about the curriculum changes envisioned after the donation, which will help pay for major renovations to the aging Abington Senior High School and the construction of a new science and technology center.
School leaders are seeking to put an end to a controversy that has divided the nearly 8,000-student school district since the gift was announced in February, praised by backers as a model for how private philanthropy could aid public schools in an era of tight budgets.
The uproar over the gift peaked in March when the board voted, with virtually no advance warning, to rename the high school for Schwarzman and to accept the billionaire’s money without making public the terms of its agreement with him.
In the face of opposition, Abington Superintendent Amy Sichel announced that Schwarzman had agreed to abandon the renaming, and then released a letter of apology over the district’s handling of the matter. Earlier this month, the district released the initial contract with the billionaire, who graduated from Abington High School in 1965 en route to Yale and a career on Wall Street.
That first plan — rescinded by the board two weeks ago — 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, among other demands.
But some Abington stakeholders complained that the new agreement unveiled April 10 was too open-ended and didn’t explicitly prevent some aspects of the first deal that they’d objected to. One leading critic — Gabrielle Sellei, a lawyer and mother of two Abington students — urged the board at the meeting to delay the vote while raising questions about the Foundation for the Abington School District that was created in 2017 to handle the Schwarzman donation.
Sellei raised question about the standards for removing the names of Schwarzman or anyone else who are honored in the renovated high school if they violate a “moral turpitude” clause. She said the current pact — which only permits the removal for a criminal conviction — is too high a bar, noting that entertainer Bill Cosby has seen honors yanked at numerous colleges even though Cosby has never been convicted of a crime despite widespread allegations of sexual misconduct.
The district solicitor, Kenneth Roos, defended the current language.”It needed to be objective criteria,” Roos said. “A criminal conviction is objective.”
McGarry also defended the structure of the new foundation, saying changes would be made at a May 1 meeting that would benefit Schwarzman for income-tax purposes but that the new philanthropy will be open and transparent. Its main function, he said, will be to liquidate Blackstone stock donated by Schwarzman to benefit the school district.