At first glance, a $25 million gift might seem like a godsend for a school district. But 18 months later, the criticism and suspicion unleashed over the Abington School District’s acceptance of a donation from billionaire Stephen Schwarzman continue to ripple.
As of Monday, the school board will have five new members — a majority of the nine-member board. The only incumbent to retain his seat in November’s election was the lone board member who voted against the record-setting gift. Four of the new arrivals effectively ran as a slate, pledging new transparency in a district roiled by what some complained had been a closed-door process.
Coursing beneath the surface are the same kinds of sharp political divides that have entangled local boards and agencies nationwide. In her unsuccessful bid for reelection, departing school board vice president Susan Arnhold decried the board’s critics as “a room full of party activists” who "decided a $25 million gift was unacceptable because they didn’t like the politics of the donor.” Schwarzman, a Republican, is a prominent friend and donor to President Donald Trump.
The incoming slate won with the backing of local Democrats. And at least some saw the Schwarzman donation as something more than a generous gift from an alumnus.
“It really felt like Abington was serving as a trial balloon for privatizing public education,” said new board member Tamar Klaiman, a district parent and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
It’s not clear whether the new board members could or would alter how the gift is spent. The district entered into a contract with Schwarzman’s foundation, and construction of a $100 million high school addition and renovation project is underway.
Still, expectations for change are running high. “There was this anti-incumbent fervor, and we wanted these new people,” said Gabrielle Sellei, a parent and lawyer who was a vocal critic of the board’s handling of the donation.
‘Commitment to public education’
Announced in February 2018 to help renovate Abington Senior High School, Schwarzman’s gift initially stirred excitement and gratitude. But criticism emerged a month later when the board voted to accept the donation without publicly disclosing the terms — which, it turned out, included renaming the high school after the Blackstone Group CEO and 1965 Abington graduate.
The board revised the agreement, reversing course on the school’s renaming. But that didn’t quell the opposition, as more details of the original agreement were revealed. The contract had called for a portrait of Schwarzman to be hung in the school and his name to go on six building entrances, among other previously unknown-to-the-public provisions, including creating a new technology curriculum.
In the end, the board approved the donation, but controversy lingered. Five months after the issue first flared, Superintendent Amy Sichel announced her plans to retire after 18 years.
This year, the debate helped motivate a new crop of candidates to seek election.
The five candidates who won on Nov. 5 were endorsed by the Abington Rockledge Democratic Committee. A fund-raising effort for the group — which ran under the name Leading Abington Forward — said, “We believe that Abington Schools should reflect the community’s commitment to public education as an inherent good to be funded by public resources.”
One new board member, Melissa Mowry, said she was concerned the Schwarzman gift had “the potential to signal to state legislators that there are other reliable revenue streams" instead of state funding.
“I did not feel as though the board ... had done due diligence," said Mowry, a literature professor at St. John’s University in New York. “I felt like I wanted to speak to that.”
While the controversy factored into her decision to run, Mowry said she and the other new members all have backgrounds as educators, experience they believe will be relevant to the board.
Working to build trust
The new board is expected to select its president and vice president in the coming days. Both will serve on a foundation affiliated with the school district that is receiving the Schwarzman money in installments.
In return for the donation, the district must issue semiannual reports to Schwarzman’s foundation on both the construction project and an initiative to expand coding classes in the district. Sichel, the former superintendent, said the curriculum change was already planned and not driven by Schwarzman.
While the term for Arnhold, the vice president, has ended, current board president Raymond McGarry remains on the board.
In an interview last week, McGarry said the new board members “are going to bring real value, they’re going to bring their own experience, background, and certainly a change to the district. I think every once in a while, some amount of change is a good thing.”
McGarry has served on the board for 22 years and said he didn’t recall a time when as many board seats changed at once. In addition to the four new members elected, the board on Tuesday appointed a fifth new member to a vacant seat after interviewing 12 candidates.
One of those candidates, Joshua Stein, resigned from the board to vie for the open seat. Stein’s term was set to expire Sunday, though he hadn’t run for reelection — again spurring complaints from community members who objected to what they saw as a circumvention of the electoral process.
The board did not appoint Stein, but Jocelyn Pickford — a parent and education consultant whose selection drew applause at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The transparency was terrific,” said Tom Stone, another applicant for the position, who complimented the board’s process.
In an email, Sellei said she and other parents were “pleasantly surprised" with Pickford’s selection.
McGarry, in the interview, said that “working to have the trust of the community is an ongoing process.”
As Tuesday night’s meeting drew to a close — after dissection of the district’s standardized testing scores and announcements of new union contracts and the hiring of a “district equity officer" — McGarry thanked the departing board members.
“Your motives, your intentions, have always been pure,” he said. That “doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes."
He then mentioned the Schwarzman gift: “We did not handle that the right way, in my opinion.”
But, McGarry said, “it makes me sad” to hear criticism of the character of board members, “because you’re good people.”
He then asked Pickford to come forward to be sworn in.