Fund­ing for ren­o­va­tions at Abington Se­nior High School prompts many ques­tions

Times Chronicle & Public Spirit - - NEWS -

To the Ed­i­tor:

On Nov. 2, the Abington School Board and the out­go­ing su­per­in­ten­dent of schools, Dr. Amy Sichel, hosted a ground­break­ing cer­e­mony for the new Steven A. Sch­warz­man Cen­ter for Science and Tech­nol­ogy to be built at Abington Se­nior High School. This new ad­di­tion to the high school is in­tended to im­prove the science, tech­nol­ogy and math fa­cil­i­ties at the school while also ex­pand­ing the over­all foot­print of the school to ac­com­mo­date ninth-graders, who cur­rently at­tend Abington’s ju­nior high school.

While Abington stu­dents will un­doubt­edly ben­e­fit from up-to-date class­rooms and im­proved tech­nol­ogy, few of them re­al­ize that they are the sub­ject of a rad­i­cal ex­per­i­ment in pub­lic school ed­u­ca­tion.

On June 1, the Abington School Board en­tered into a mul­timil­lion dol­lar pledge agree­ment with the Stephen A. Sch­warz­man Foun­da­tion, a char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tion founded by multi­bil­lion­aire Abington Se­nior High School alum­nus Stephen Sch­warz­man. While ini­tially an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary with great fan­fare as a prece­dent-set­ting gift from a pri­vate in­di­vid­ual to a pub­lic school sys­tem, over the en­su­ing weeks, it be­came clear that this gift was ar­ranged in a ques­tion­ably se­cre­tive process — ar­guably in vi­o­la­tion of Penn­syl­va­nia’s pub­lic dis­clo­sure laws which re­quire trans­parency in such mat­ters — and that the terms of the gift it­self con­tained some trou­bling de­tails.

While these terms are too nu­mer­ous even to sum­ma­rize here, the $25 mil­lion gift will not, de­spite the wish­ful think­ing of Abington res­i­dents, re­lieve any res­i­dent’s tax bur­den. On the con­trary, this gift sim­ply in­creased the bud­get for a long-planned science wing at the high school by ex­actly $25 mil­lion to ap­prox­i­mately $100 mil­lion. These ad­di­tional funds will pro­vide cer­tain ben­e­fits to Abington School District stu­dents, to be sure, but these are add-ons, bell-and­whis­tle en­hance­ments to a project long in the works.

In re­turn, Sch­warz­man re­ceived a swag bag of good­ies, in­clud­ing nam­ing rights for his for­mer track coach and two of his team­mates in the school’s ath­letic cen­ter, nam­ing rights for the new wing it­self and so on. But most dis­turbingly, Sch­warz­man asked for — and re­ceived — a pro­vi­sion in the pledge agree­ment that will re­sult in manda­tory com­puter classes for all ASD stu­dents start­ing in sev­enth grade. In short, a pri­vate in­di­vid­ual who is nei­ther an Abington tax­payer, par­ent nor ed­u­ca­tor pur­chased the rights to a school district’s most fun­da­men­tal de­ci­sion: what to teach its stu­dents.

Dur­ing the noisy pub­lic de­bate that en­sued, Su­per­in­ten­dent Sichel and var­i­ous school board mem­bers made many trou­bling state­ments as they at­tempted to jus­tify both the process and the sub­stance of the Sch­warz­man do­na­tion. One of the most trou­bling of these state­ments was barely no­ticed. On March 28, school board Pres­i­dent Ray McGarry noted, “Un­for­tu­nately, the Com­mon­wealth of Penn­syl­va­nia and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment are not fund­ing our pub­lic schools at the level to which I be­lieve it is nec­es­sary . ... Pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion is un­der at­tack at the fed­eral level.” These de­creased lev­els of fund­ing, McGarry went on to say, ne­ces­si­tate “cre­ativ­ity” in fundrais­ing. En­ter Sch­warz­man.

McGarry is not wrong, to a point. Pub­lic school fund­ing has in­deed been un­der at­tack for much of his lengthy ten­ure on the school board. This at­tack has been sig­nif­i­cantly am­pli­fied dur­ing the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion. And sure enough, Sch­warz­man is an ad­viser, friend and sup­porter of Trump, has held meet­ings with Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion Betsy DeVos and — amaz­ingly — has stated pub­licly and proudly that he wishes to see his gift spur a “par­a­digm shift” in the way pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion is funded.

And what, ex­actly, is the par­a­digm shift­ing to? What is his agenda? Sch­warz­man isn’t say­ing, at least not pub­licly. Is this lack of de­tail due to his ig­no­rance on ed­u­ca­tional mat­ters? Or are we wit­ness­ing an­other ex­am­ple of the fol­low-the­money klep­toc­racy that is grip­ping our pub­lic pol­i­cy­mak­ing these days?

What­ever his rea­sons, the sim­ple fact is that he doesn’t have to tell us. That’s the beauty of pri­vate money — it’s pri­vate.

The sce­nario un­fold­ing in Abington should be a call to arms — a call for ap­pro­pri­ate lev­els of fund­ing for schools and for the elec­tion of leg­is­la­tors at all lev­els who be­lieve in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion — and one that should be led by McGarry, Sichel and other lead­ers in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

This should also be a call to ac­tion and ad­vo­cacy on the part of par­ents, stu­dents, teach­ers and all of us with a stake in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion; our schools are per­haps our most im­por­tant civic in­sti­tu­tion, our in­vest­ment in our fu­ture and our re­spon­si­bil­ity to prop­erly fund and pro­tect.

The al­ter­na­tive — the un­reg­u­lated pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic schools by fun­ders with un­known agen­das and no par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in ed­u­ca­tion — is risky and dan­ger­ous to both to our pub­lic schools and, above all, to our stu­dents. — Gabrielle Sellei, Abington

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