Apologies and anger at Abington school board meeting

Abington School District leaders pledged transparency and apologized profusely at a packed school board meeting Tuesday night for their handling of a $25 million gift from Wall Street billionaire Stephen Schwarzman and the now-abandoned plan to rename the high school after him — but the sometimes angry crowd was left hanging for at least one more day to hear some key details.

Superintendent Amy Sichel and board members revealed details of a new deal with Schwarzman for his donation but said the old agreement — which included the renaming and was approved by the board on March 27 with little community input — would not be posted online until Wednesday morning. The posting also will include extensive details about a foundation created in 2017 to receive Schwarzman’s donation.

“We’ll vote on the agreement after we’ve received your comment — that should have happened two weeks ago,” School Board President Raymond McGarry told a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 people at the Abington Junior High School Little Theater. “For that we are profoundly sorry. Transparency in government is critical. …When government leaders are not transparent, the public loses faith in them.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Superintendent Amy Sichel and School Board President Raymond McGarry stand for the Pledge of Allegiance as the Abington School Board opens its meeting. McGarry apologized to residents. Sichel already did so in a letter.

Despite the stream of apologies for what McGarry called “a drastic error in judgment,” a lengthy presentation on the high school renovation that would be partly funded by Schwarzman’s gift was interrupted several times by angry attendees.

“This is horrendous,” one woman shouted out during the presentation. “You are here to hear us tonight. If you want us on your side, you have to listen to us.”

Another soon yelled out, “These billionaires need to pay more taxes!”

“I’m still really emotional about anyone changing our name without our consent,” Gwen Vance, a 1980 Abington High graduate, said during the public comment section. “Help me understand how you can make such a monumental decision without even asking.”

Alumni, parents, and other district stakeholders have also expressed outrage that the district had refused to release the initial agreement with Schwarzman that was voted on last month, and have pressed to learn more details about the nonprofit foundation created last year to receive the gift — including the makeup of the foundation board, and any other stipulations that came with the billionaire’s money.

Sichel and other district officials had said public disclosure of the original agreement with Schwarzman was under “legal review.” Meanwhile, the revised agreement with the donor — which was discussed briefly Tuesday and should soon appear online — is expected to be voted on at an April 24 board meeting.

McGarry had strong words of praise for Schwarzman and his commitment to Abington schools, echoed by Sichel and other board members. Added McGarry: “Whatever Schwarzman’s beliefs are, and whoever his friends are, is not relevant to this gift.” Schwarzman is a friend of President Trump.

The brouhaha wasn’t exactly what district leaders expected when they announced in February that Schwarzman, a 1965 graduate of the high school, who has acquired a net worth of more than $12 billion as co-founder and CEO of the Blackstone Group private equity firm, was making the $25 million gift.

Both Sichel and Schwarzman hailed the donation, which will help pay for the renovation of the high school and a new science and technology center, as a model for how public schools could tap into private donations from wealthy alumni.

But any goodwill dissipated with the March 27 vote to rename the high school as Abington Schwarzman High School — a stipulation that was not disclosed right away. After more than 1,500 parents, alumni, and others signed a Change.org petition criticizing the name change, the district and the donor agreed to cancel it, and Sichel apologized in a subsequent letter for how the matter was handled.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Abington resident Jim Kurek addresses the Abington School Board before a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 people.

But that didn’t end complaints from people who questioned why the philanthropic organization created more than a year ago to handle Schwarzman’s gift — the Foundation for Abington School District — had not been previously disclosed, and whether the billionaire had placed restrictions on how his money could be spent. Some also complained more broadly about the privatization of public education as well as controversial past remarks that Schwarzman has made about taxes and teacher salaries.

David Brooks, a 2000 Abington alumnus, drew applause at the meeting when he asked, “When are the next elections?”

He said the board’s March 27 vote was either “brazen” or “sneaky” or just “stupid,” and asked what other things besides the high school renaming were in the first pact. The district solicitor, Kenneth Roos, said there were some provisions about honoring other members of Schwarzman’s family but offered no other specifics.

Not all the attendees were critical. Chuck Gesing, a math teacher with three children, said “maybe it wasn’t handled picture perfect,” but  Schwarzman’s donation would benefit Abington’s children.

Vince Volz, a parent of three children who attend or graduated from Abington public schools, said Tuesday that he had lodged a formal complaint with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro this month asking him to investigate the Schwarzman donation and how it was handled.

“I think the attorney general should at least review all these big contributions that go to public schools to make sure the money is going where it should be going,” said Volz, who expressed concern about any possible stipulations on what can be taught. Joe Grace, a spokesman for the attorney general, said Shapiro’s office would look into the complaint.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
A photo of Stephen Schwarzman, who has agreed to donate $25 million to Abington Senior High School, is projected near the school board, along with a quote from him.