Any cash-strapped public school would have trouble turning down a generous gift from a graduate. But the strings attached to billionaire Stephen A. Schwarzman's $25 million gift were more than the Abington, Pennsylvania, community could accept.
Two weeks ago, the Abington school board voted privately to change the name of its high school to honor Schwarzman, chairman of Blackstone Group, a private equity firm. The backlash was immediate when the community learned of the details.
Schwarzman not only wanted the school's name changed, he wanted his name to appear on at least six entrances of the high school. He also wanted a portrait of himself prominently displayed at the suburban Philadelphia school. The names of his twin brothers would grace other parts of the high school campus, along with the names of a former track coach and two of Schwarzman's friends.
The billionaire wanted approval over the choice of a construction contractor, as well as input in the design.
Schwarzman also wanted curriculum changes at the school, with students being required to take coding or computer literacy courses – an initiative widely pushed by business officials, including those in Indiana, where a new computer science instruction requirement was just approved by the General Assembly.
Finally, the Blackstone CEO wanted the details of his demands kept secret. But the name change prompted such an outcry that the board was forced to rescind the deal. A new agreement, which still must be approved, eliminates most of his demands. A new science and technology center will be named for Schwarzman instead of the entire high school.
A Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who attended a heated school board meeting wrote this week that parents objecting to the terms of the gift should have been paying attention to the financial challenges that prompted the elected board to accept the gift and its accompanying requirements.
“What I saw inside Abington's standing-room-only junior high school auditorium was mostly a one-way blame game,” wrote Maria Panaritis. “Few of the very many citizen-speakers said anything about the funding crunch, years in the making and involving state and federal governments, that drove the board to spend more than a year courting Schwarzman. ... It might be time to stop throwing darts at billionaires and figure out who's really running the show. Get involved locally. Vote out whoever isn't passing tax policies that deliver for kids.”