Abington superintendent to retire after Stephen Schwarzman donation debacle

Superintendent Amy Sichel speaks during an Abington School Board meeting in April. Residents questioned the $25 million donation from Wall Street billionaire and alum Stephen Schwarzman.

Five months after engineering a controversial $25 million gift from a billionaire Wall Street alumnus to remake Abington Senior High School, superintendent Amy Sichel said Monday that she will retire on Nov. 9.

In an email to parents, teachers, and other stakeholders, Sichel gave no indication that her impending departure was connected to the flap over the gift from 1965 Abington graduate Stephen Schwarzman, believed to be the largest-ever donation to a public school. Instead, she called her position “one of my proudest titles and an opportunity for which I am forever grateful.”

A former school psychologist who has worked in the district for 42 years, Sichel has served for 18 years as Abington’s top educator. Her $319,714 salary makes her the highest-paid school superintendent in Pennsylvania.

One school official said Sichel, 65, was not pushed out, but the news of her retirement was still a surprise. “People talk in the abstract all the time, but I was absolutely not expecting this,” said the official, who asked not to be identified publicly discussing the personnel change. “She talked about ‘when I retire’ … but not in the next six months or a year.”

Schwarzman’s donation, announced in February, sparked a huge uproar in the Montgomery County community. Sichel and Schwarzman hailed it as an innovative model to help cash-strapped public school systems.

A backlash erupted a month later when the school board – with virtually no advance warning – voted to rename the high school Abington Schwarzman High School, one of several details of an initial agreement that had not been made public.

The brouhaha caused Sichel and Schwarzman to abandon the renaming and led the superintendent to write a letter of apology over how the matter was handled. However, the board eventually voted to accept the billionaire’s gift, which will be used to renovate the high school and build a new science and technology wing as well as create a new technology curriculum.

The flap riled up parents and other activists and led to embarrassing disclosures, including an email that Sichel had sent to Schwarzman that apologized for the community’s anger over the failed renaming and said, “I am so concerned that thoughtless people have hurt you.”

Although Sichel had said the Schwarzman-funded project “will be the culmination of my career,” no mention of the gift was made in Sichel’s retirement email, in the news release about it posted on the district’s website, or in a follow-up email from School Board President Raymond McGarry.

In the release, McGarry, a strong supporter of the superintendent, said she “has been the backbone to our success with students, our achievements in many areas, our ability to be fiscally responsible, and our focus to rebuild and renovate our school buildings.”

In his own letter, he used the words noble and bold, and said she was a “role model,” in extolling her many achievements during her long tenure in Abington.

“The Abington School District is a better place for having benefited from Dr. Sichel’s leadership, drive, motivation, creativity and talents as she led us through a recession, multiple contract negotiations, and a myriad of other challenges,” he wrote.

Calls for comment from Sichel and McGarry were not returned.

Sichel gave no reason for stepping down in her email. She said retiring wasn’t an easy decision and noted how much had been accomplished in Abington during her time there.  “None of this could have been accomplished without parents/guardians, students, alumni, community members and business partners who put children first,” she said.

Gabrielle Sellei, a parent and lawyer who was a frequent foil over the donation, said in an email she was pleased that Sichel was stepping aside.

“The way the Schwarzman donation was handled – behind closed doors and without public input – and then delivered to us as a fait accompli struck many of us as duplicitous, high-handed, and contrary to both the spirit of public education and the laws of public disclosure.  I believe that these actions compromised Dr. Sichel’s bond with the community and her ability to effectively lead Abington School District,” she said.

 Another parent and critic, Vince Volz, who had called on her to resign and asked the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate the way the donation was handled, said, “I think it’s time for her to move on. It’s time for the school board and administration to go in a different direction. I think she controlled the school board.”

David Brooks, a 2000 graduate of Abington who spoke out at school board meetings, said he believes her stepping down “is a positive step in helping the community to heal. Her emailed comments in regards to the Abington residents/alumni who rightfully opposed the terms of the Schwarzman ‘gift’ were divisive and necessitated a change.”

Those emails may have been a turning point in the debate over the district’s willingness to appease the demands of a generous donor, who in addition to naming rights wanted his picture prominently displayed, his brothers’ names on other parts of the building and a curriculum that stressed computer coding, among other things.

In Sichel’s emails, which were provided to the Inquirer and Daily News in May in response to a Right-to-Know request, she apologized for the revolt by parents and alumni against the plan to rename the school.

“I write to apologize for the community members and alumni who made inappropriate responses to your most generous gift,” Sichel wrote, adding that she was “shocked and disappointed that anyone would question your generosity and desire to just help a school you love.”

An Abington Facebook group, Abington Helping Abington No Rules, was filled with celebratory messages after news of her retirement surfaced. “I guess she didn’t want to work for us ungrateful people anymore,” said one.

Others complained that the district would be paying for her severance package for years.  According to district solicitor Kenneth A. Roos, Sichel’s 2015 five-year contract called for her to be paid for unused vacation time and sick days, term life insurance until age 72 or her death, health insurance for her and her husband until age 66, then Medicare supplemental and prescription, vision and dental insurance for the couple for life.