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Abington apologizes for mishandling of $25M donation that called for high school renaming

In a letter to the community, superintendent Amy Sichel, school board president Raymond McGarry and vice-president Susan Arnold said the agreement which called for changing the school's name to the Abington Schwarzman High School and which the board approved a week ago would be rescinded at the April 10 school board meeting. At that time, a new agreement with Schwarzman will be made public and voted on by the board on April 24.

File – In this Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 file photo, Blackstone Group chairman and CEO Stephen Schwarzman speaks at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, in New York.   (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
File – In this Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 file photo, Blackstone Group chairman and CEO Stephen Schwarzman speaks at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)Read moreMark Lennihan

Abington School District wants a do-over.

After a week of controversy, school officials on Tuesday apologized for the way they handled a deal to rename their high school after an alumnus who is donating $25 million to renovate the aging building, and said they would replace the pledge agreement with a new, more transparent one.

In a letter to the community, Superintendent Amy Sichel, school board president Raymond McGarry, and vice president Susan Arnold said that the board would vote to rescind the agreement April 10, and a new pact would be made available at that time. The board would then vote on the new agreement on April 24.

The school board had voted last Tuesday to change the name of the high school to Abington Schwarzman High School after Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman in exchange for his mega-gift. The board never sought public comment and didn't give the community advance notice about the vote.

In the letter, the school officials noted that the new pledge agreement between Schwarzman and the district "will be available for all to see and will provide the details of Mr. Schwarzman's gift well before a vote on the agreement. … We welcome everyone in the community to attend these two meetings and are making arrangements to accommodate additional seating."

Parents and alumni were irate when they found out naming rights had been given to the Wall Street billionaire. After 1,300 people signed a petition opposing the deal, Sichel sent out a brief email Saturday morning saying that because of concerns raised "by a minority in the community" the school would not be renamed.

Tuesday's letter was lengthier, more apologetic, and provided more details. The school officials said they recognized that they "could have done a far better job of seeking public input on the name change" as well as providing time for the community to review the agreement prior to the vote.

"The frustration that we heard from you was completely understandable," they wrote.

They also thanked Schwarzman, a former track star and president of student council, "for his willingness to withdraw the naming proposal when it raised objections. You should all know that Mr. Schwarzman cares deeply about the community, and proudly credits much of his own success to the great start he received in Abington. While he was proud to add his name to the school it was never an effort to remove or diminish 'Abington.' "

In a statement Tuesday, a Blackstone spokeswoman said: "Mr. Schwarzman is proud to be able to help his home town deliver academic excellence and is perfectly happy for the school to retain its name."

There was no mention of Schwarzman's name being stamped on the school, proudly or otherwise, when the district announced last month with great fanfare that the 1965 grad was donating millions to renovate the 1950s-era high school. It is believed to be the largest donation to a single public school.

In their letter, school officials pointed out that at the time "the community was appreciative and ecstatic."

Now, the officials said, the new Center for Science and Technology will be named after the district's deep-pocketed benefactor. It will be the second Abington building to bear his name. The Schwarzman Stadium was so named after he gave $400,000.

Other details of the revised agreement will include naming the Athletic Center in honor of Bobby Bryant, and the Auxiliary Gym in honor of Billy Wilson, who were on the track team with Schwarzman. In addition, the Athletic Hall of Fame will be renamed for their coach, Jack Armstrong.

The officials said Schwarzman will not have any sway over the curriculum, which will be updated to expand computer-science courses. Schwarzman has said that he believes all students should learn computer coding and other advanced technology skills. Parents worried he was demanding that students take those courses.

But Sichel, in an interview this week, said the school already had plans to integrate computer coding and more advanced technology courses into the curriculum for the majority of students at the junior and senior high schools.  She said Schwarzman's vision "matched our desire for increased computer literacy. …That's always been in the plan."

The donation will be paid on a preset schedule through 2022, when the renovation is expected to be complete. The first payment of $6 million will be made by July 1. The agreement outlines the full schedule of payments.