Apparently, $25 million can't buy you the naming rights to a public high school.
In a letter released Saturday morning, Abington School District Superintendent Amy Sichel announced that the district had reversed its plan to rename the Montgomery County high school after Stephen Schwarzman, the Wall Street billionaire who made the mega-donation.
The school board's decision to change Abington Senior High School to Abington Schwarzman High School drew public outrage, with more than 1,300 people signing an online petition opposing the deal.
"I have spoken to our donor's representatives regarding the concerns raised by a minority in the community around the change of our school name," Sichel wrote in her letter to parents and alumni. "The purpose of this generous gift – the largest ever to a U.S. public high school in history – is to help Abington High School be the best it can be and to undertake a critical renovation that will dramatically improve the student experience as well as student preparedness.
"The donor's representatives conveyed that nothing should detract from our important mission and agree that the school's name should remain as is," she wrote.
According to an action item on a recent school board agenda, "the Grantor (the Stephen A. Schwarzman Foundation) agrees to make a total contribution to the Foundation and District of $25,000,000 in return for, among other things, naming and recognition rights for the Abington Senior High School, to be renamed the Abington Schwarzman High School."
Under the original agreement, Schwarzman would be able to name locations within the gym complex as a memorial to his late track coach and two former track teammates. Schwarzman would also be notified if the district sells naming rights to any other benefactors, according to a person familiar with the agreement.
Sichel, a friend of Schwarzman who attended his 70th birthday party last year, did not state in her letter whether those conditions would change. The $25 million is expected to be used to build a new science and technology wing and renovate the 1950s-era high school from which Schwarzman graduated in 1965.
"On behalf of the Abington community I would like to express my sincere thanks to Mr. Schwarzman for his generosity and vision surrounding the project," Sichel wrote. "We also thank all those in the community and around the country who have reached out in support of this momentous project, recognizing the huge impact it will have on our students for decades to come. The Abington community remains extremely grateful for the help."
As of Saturday afternoon, about 1,380 people had signed a Change.org petition urging the school board not to rename the high school. Several of the petitioners, including Abington Township Commissioner Steven Kline, were upset at the lack of transparency surrounding the deal with Schwarzman.
"It's unfortunate that it got to that point," Kline said. "I would have liked to see them vet it a little better."
Schools are not under the control of the township commissioners, but Kline, whose children attend the high school, said he had been fielding calls and emails from angry constituents. He said $25 million is a "very generous gift," but local taxpayers "have a whole lot more invested in the school."
"If they want to name a wing after Mr. Schwarzman, so be it," Kline said. "But the school should remain Abington High School."
Abington resident Gabrielle Sellei said the board failed to inform residents that there were so many strings attached to Schwarzman's donation.
"I am a parent of two children and a 17-year resident of Abington and I've been reading the Inquirer to find out what's going on in my school district," Sellei said. "People like me still don't know what's in that deal. We don't know what's on the table, what's reversible."
Sellei, an entertainment and media lawyer, said renaming the school after Schwarzman raises another issue: "What happens when the person carrying the name screws up? What happens when there are reputational issues?" she asked, noting that Schwarzman once compared President Barack Obama's tax policies to Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland.
A Schwarzman spokesman declined to comment Saturday and school district officials could not be reached.