A vanity gift? Complaints bubble after Abington agrees to rename high school for billionaire donor Schwarzman

When Wall Street billionaire Stephen Schwarzman announced he was donating $25 million to Abington Senior High School, he said in a release that investing in public education “yields one of the best returns imaginable – a new generation of creative, capable and collaborate future leaders…”

For the Blackstone CEO there was another, far more personal, return – his name on his alma mater, which the school board voted unanimously on Tuesday night to rename Abington Schwarzman High School.

Shortly after the board vote, the news exploded on a Facebook forum where residents vented over the move, calling it “insane,”  “egotistical,” and “stupid.”

“The stadium is already named after him. That’s enough. Too much ego,” wrote one commenter.

“Maybe they’ll give the school directors little team schwarzman shirts at the next meeting,” another wrote.

According to the action item on the school board agenda, “the Grantor (the Stephen A. Schwarzman Foundation) agrees to make a total contribution to the Foundation and District of $25,000,000 in return for, among other things, naming and recognition rights for the Abington Senior High School, to be renamed the Abington Schwarzman High School.”

School Board President Raymond McGarry said Wednesday that he always “understood” there would be naming rights tied to the donation. As discussions about the agreement progressed, the idea of naming the entire school after the philanthropist arose.

“My sense is that the ask came from Mr. Schwarzman,” McGarry said.

He said everyone agreed that the school should still have Abington in its name, and the new name will retain the school’s acronym, ASHS.

“I am really pleased,” said Superintendent Amy Sichel,  “that Mr. Schwarzman wanted to retain the name of Abington and the initials ASHS, because the history is important to the community, and to us and to him as well.”

Schwarzman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Last month, the district announced that the wealthy businessman, a close friend of President Trump, would give the staggering donation to his old school, where he starred in track and won the student council presidency. Sichel, who has known Schwarzman for more than a decade and attended his 70th birthday party last year at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, said she had been talking to him for more than a year about the gift.

Sichel has said the money will transform education at the 1950s-era high school, and will be used to build a new science and technology wing and renovate the high school from which Schwarzman graduated in 1965. The school will be renamed once the renovation — expected to be finished in September 2022 —  is complete.

Besides naming and recognition rights for the high school, other conditions of the huge gift are that technology classes be increased for kids and that Schwarzman get to name other locations within the gym complex as a memorial to his late track coach Jack Armstrong and former track-team mates Billy Wilson and Bobby Bryant.

In addition, said a person familiar with the agreement who asked not to be identified, Schwarzman would be notified if the district sells naming rights to any other benefactors.

In 2004, Sichel also lobbied Schwarzman to donate to the district’s $1 million fund drive for a stadium, which was eventually named Schwarzman Stadium.

Selling naming rights for college buildings and even high school athletic fields has become increasingly common – in 2010 Lower Merion named its gym after its most famous alumnus, Kobe Bryant, after his $411,000 donation, the largest gift in the district’s history at that time. But far fewer public elementary and high schools have embraced naming buildings after donors.

McGarry said that while it’s unusual for a public school to sell naming rights, “it’s also not typical for a public high school to get $25 million.”

He said he understood that some people might be upset at the name change. His response, he said, was that if the state properly funded schools, school boards wouldn’t have to rely on private funding.

“Our hands are tied in how we can raise revenue. We can raise taxes and nobody likes that, ” he said “With the current assault in public education on the federal level, we’re forced to look in other directions for funding sources.”

David Judge, a father of three Abington students, said he went to the meeting after his wife noticed the agenda item about the name change. He said he was concerned the public wasn’t told about the change until the day of the board vote.

He assumed some part of the renovated school would be named after Schwarzman, he said, “the science wing, a lab or a portion of the new thing — but not renaming the entire school.”