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Abington superintendent to Stephen Schwarzman: 'Thoughtless people' opposed $25 million deal

Abington School District e-mails raise questions about the influence that large contributors, such as Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone, can have over public officials.

Portion of the email from Superintendent Amy Sichel to Stephen Schwarzman.
Portion of the email from Superintendent Amy Sichel to Stephen Schwarzman.Read moreStaff Graphic

When Abington School District parents and alumni revolted against a plan to rename its high school after billionaire Stephen Schwarzman in exchange for his $25 million donation, district officials said they understood the outrage.

In a March 30 letter to the community, Superintendent Amy Sichel and the president and vice president of the school board wrote: "We understand that even after reading this letter, some people may disagree with the decision and may not support this name change. That is absolutely your right, and we respect your opinions."

The next morning, Sichel had a different message for Schwarzman, the Blackstone CEO and 1965 Abington High graduate.

"I write to apologize for the community members and alumni who made inappropriate responses to your most generous gift," Sichel wrote in an email, adding that she is "shocked and disappointed that anyone would question your generosity and desire to just help a school you love."

"I am deeply saddened by this and am so concerned that thoughtless people have hurt you," Sichel continued, describing the public criticism of the deal as "harsh and undeserving."

Sichel and Schwarzman declined to comment Friday on the email exchange. Some parents were livid after learning of the messages.

"I am really upset," Gabrielle Sellei, an attorney and parent who has been outspoken about the donation, said after reading the emails. "Normally it feels good to be validated. This feels horrific."

Abington Superintendent ‘Shocked and Disappointed’

The Montgomery County school district and Schwarzman had initially framed his $25 million gift — believed to be the largest ever to a U.S. public high school — as a model for how underfunded public schools can raise money from wealthy alumni and donors. Schwarzman is worth an estimated $12.4 billion.

But the Abington emails — provided to the Inquirer and Daily News this week in response to a Right-to-Know request filed last month — raise questions about the influence that large contributors can have over public officials.

The emails show that private cash infusions into public schools can lead to "divided loyalties" among officials who should be putting the interests of taxpayers first, said Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

"It shows exactly why we ought to adequately fund our public institutions with our tax dollars and we shouldn't need to rely on philanthropic contributions to make ends meet," Dorfman said.

When Schwarzman's gift was announced in February, along with the plan to use the $25 million to build a new science and technology wing and renovate the 1950s-era high school, there was no mention of the proposed strings attached, including renaming the school Abington Schwarzman High School.

But the emails show such conversations were occurring. The month before, Schwarzman had messaged Sichel: "Let's make sure each student is taught coding so they will be job prepared for the modern world. This will be a condition of the gift."

Sichel soon replied to Schwarzman's representative: "I am hopeful we can finalize the grant agreement with the conditions Steve desires. … I will focus on naming opportunities, a sequence of study for coding, and our plan to increase the number of guidance counselors."

After the naming issue became a public controversy, Sichel said that Schwarzman had no control over curriculum because the school district had already added coding classes starting in seventh and eighth grade.

As for renaming the school, Sichel had emailed Schwarzman's representatives several possibilities, including Stephen A. Schwarzman High School, Schwarzman High School and S.A. Schwarzman High School.

She guided them toward Abington Schwarzman High School, according to the emails, because she said it maintains the geographic identity and ASHS abbreviation (for Abington Senior High School) seen throughout the campus.

The school board's March approval of the Schwarzman agreement came with little public notice and prompted a backlash from Abington parents and alumni around the country.

That agreement, which the district had initially refused to make public, included a long list of demands from Schwarzman. He wanted a self-portrait prominently hung in the high school, his name displayed on at least six entrances, approval over building design, and other spaces in the building named after his brothers. The agreement also included strict confidentiality requirements.

Last month, Abington's board apologized for approving the first deal and passed a new pledge agreement with far fewer demands. The name of the high school will not change.

Despite the controversy, Blackstone's website says that Schwarzman, in donating $25 million to his alma mater, is "advocating for a paradigm shift in how schools and donors approach private support for public education."

Dorfman, of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, said a better model for public school philanthropy would be one in which donors "set aside their egos and provide some extra money … not one where donors make all sorts of demands."

Sellei, the Abington parent, said the emails showed Sichel's true priorities.

"The superintendent of our school district, who we pay handsomely, her sole constituents are our children. … But apparently she worked for Stephen Schwarzman, not our children," Sellei said. "You can see in those emails that her concerns were him, his feelings."

(Sichel, whose salary in 2016-17 was $319,749, is the highest-paid school district superintendent in Pennsylvania.)

After reading about the emails Friday, Vince Volz, a father of two Abington students and a third who graduated, sent a letter to the school board president calling for Sichel to be fired.

"She stepped out of bounds by apologizing for the community for their opinions and thoughts," Volz said in an interview.  "I'm just so angry right now."

"She called us thoughtless," he said. "We weren't thoughtless in any way. The whole thing was secretive. Enough's enough."

Back in January, before the controversy, Sichel effusively praised Schwarzman, who more than a decade earlier had helped pay for a new football stadium at the high school.

"As our most notable and distinguished graduate, your contributions to the Abington School District will make an everlasting mark as well as honor your legacy," Sichel wrote him in one email.

"For me," she continued, "this project and program will be the culmination of my career and it is my distinct pleasure to do this once again with you."