So this is what it takes to fill the house at a suburban school board meeting: Officials bungle a $25 million gift from a Wall Street billionaire. It becomes a reality-TV-like story line of big money, drama, and deception, ending with outraged citizens demanding apologies from a band of grown men and women in a packed auditorium.
The Abington School Board should do this sort of thing a lot more often. Blackstone Group founder Stephen Schwarzman, who apparently likes his name on lots of bricks and mortar, should keep his costarring role, too.
For democracy's sake.
Because 400 people in sleepy suburbia came out to hear the chorus of mea culpas from leaders of one of suburban Philadelphia's most admired districts. Most were not regulars to this typically discarded civic show. (An ordinary night draws maybe a dozen people to see how a district serves more than 8,000 children.) It took a controversial gift from a hedge-fund headliner to get people off the soccer field sidelines. And that's not good.
For all the justifiable rancor, Tuesday was a display of opportunistic activism. True, citizens saved Abington High from losing its name by forcing the district to rescind and disclose its originally secret agreement with Schwarzman. As a result of their efforts, we know today that the man who threw himself a $7 million 70th birthday party demanded that his name be emblazoned on the high school at more than six different spots in return for this gift to his alma mater.
But for all that noise, those efforts will yield little of lasting value to anyone who truly values the integrity of adequately funded public schools in America. What's needed is attention to be paid when it isn't as sexy to care.
Maybe then their school board members wouldn't have tried to slip past the fact that they'd promised Schwarzman naming rights in return for his pledge to help finance a roughly $100 million renovation and expansion of the 1950s-era high school from which he graduated in 1965.
Maybe they would have understood just how desperately the district needs money to bring its facilities into the modern era, because government isn't helping.
"Nobody ever told me we were in such dire straits!" resident Gwen Vance told the board, after saying she considered herself informed because she is active on social media.
What I saw inside Abington's standing-room-only junior high school auditorium was mostly a one-way blame game. 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. The 7:30 p.m. meeting ran to midnight before the board voted unanimously to rescind the original agreement and scratch Schwarzman's naming rights to the school itself.
"This whole experience, for me, has been embarrassing and shameful," said a visibly downcast board member Daniel Kaye. He said he'd been bombarded with unhappy feedback almost immediately after voting a few weeks earlier to approve the name change while giving the public virtually no advance notice.
When it came time to vote March 27, he was surprised to learn he and his elected colleagues would be voting on renaming the entire school, and not just a wing, after Schwarzman.
"I was broadsided by the vote. I wanted to stop the whole thing, and I didn't," Kaye said. "I should have said something and didn't."
It's outrageous that a board member felt so paralyzed into inaction because of a rich man's desperately coveted donation. No number of apologies — and School Board President Raymond McGarry offered up a ton of them — makes much sense.
Bravo to the public, which demanded a full accounting.
McGarry, a seasoned business lawyer with 20 years' experience on the board, talked as though he had been so starstruck by the gift — or perhaps so cowed by the fear of losing Schwarzman's generosity — that he failed to assess the impact that sneaking through the renaming vote would have on the public.
"It was not my intent to be sneaky or to mislead the public," said McGarry, who would have us believe he fell victim to situational naivete — a lawyer whose day job is to handle cases involving such complex matters as shareholder disputes, banking, contract litigation, and insurance conflicts.
While feasting on these apologies, only a very few of the dozens who waited hours to speak Tuesday mentioned the broader problems afflicting districts like Abington, a middle-class cluster far from the lavish per-pupil spenders like Lower Merion or Radnor Townships.
Samantha Bromley was the exception. The mother from Glenside seemed humbled by her own failure to be doing her part in demanding better from her government — until now.
"This is my second-ever board meeting. I've lived here 10 years," she said. "I am mad at myself. I will not be silent."
It might be time to stop throwing darts at billionaires and figure out who's really running the show in Harrisburg and Washington. Get involved locally. Vote out whoever isn't passing tax policies that deliver for kids.