Wall Street tycoon Stephen Schwarzman's $25 million gift to Abington High School was heralded in February as a historic and good-hearted gesture to his alma mater. But as details of its attached strings leaked out, it began to resemble a deal with disturbing implications for public education in America.
This arrangement would set a treacherous precedent for our nation's already neglected public schools. The fact that the district and Schwarzman hatched elements of the quid-pro-quo agreement with zero input from taxpayers only further erodes confidence that our embattled schools can thrive or survive without desperate, confidential maneuvers involving wealthy benefactors.
It was only through a published agenda of a school board meeting weeks after Schwarzman's gift was announced that the public found out that Abington High School would be renamed after the Blackstone Group investment firm cofounder.
Another detail: The school would tweak its curriculum after receiving the money, as Schwarzman asserted on his Blackstone bio page, where he is described as a man who "has always attempted to tackle big problems and find transformative solutions."
One can't help but wonder if also buried somewhere in the fine print was a proviso that a gilded hangar be constructed on school grounds for the emperor's gold chariot.
Although Schwarzman's gift to Abington was believed to be the first of its size and type to a single such school, he clearly imagines the public-school chase for donations from the super rich — what I'll christen Billionaire Bonanza — should continue.
Schwarzman told the Wall Street Journal he planned to give several thousand superintendents advice on how to raise money from people like him: "I'm going to talk to them about how you ask people to support something that's very worthy, how to organize themselves, what it's like to be rejected, how to have a conversation. It's a learned behavior. These private schools and universities are really good at doing this."
Abington residents rightly blew a fuse when they heard about the naming rights.
District officials jettisoned that plan and on Tuesday apologized for their handling of the matter. Superintendent Amy Sichel promised that the board would vote to rescind the Schwarzman agreement April 10 and unveil a new one that the public would be able to fully review before an approval vote by April 24.
That doesn't change the stark reality that this is no way to fund the public schools that helped make some of its tycoons the people they are today.
I reached out to Schwarzman on Wednesday but was told he was unavailable for an interview. A spokesman told me he supports public and private aid for public schools.
A Billionaire's Public Schools Gift — With Strings