ABINGTON, Pa. — Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Wall Street billionaire, was prepared to cut a $25 million check to the high school he attended here in the 1960s, to help it pay for a huge renovation project.
For starters, the public school should be renamed in his honor. A portrait of him should be displayed prominently in the building.
Spaces at the school should be named for his twin brothers. He should have the right to review the project’s contractors and to sign off on a new school logo.
The school district’s officials accepted the deal.
So it was that this Philadelphia bedroom community of 55,000, not normally a hotbed of civic unrest, exploded into a populist fury.
“Help me understand how you could make such a monumental decision without even asking?” demanded Gwen Vance, a lung-transplant nurse who graduated from Abington in 1980.
She was one of roughly 250 town residents who showed up at a standing-room-only school board meeting Tuesday night to vent about what felt a bit like a hostile Wall Street takeover of a local institution. The five-hour meeting, in an auditorium at the junior high school, ran well past midnight. There was shouting, name-calling and more than one demand for officials to resign.
“I just think there’s too much influence about big money, Wall Street money, in our society,” complained Robert Durham, who works at the local Chevrolet dealership and sent two sons through Abington Senior High School. He arrived at the meeting 45 minutes early.
Stunned by the public outcry, which included an online petition that has now garnered nearly 1,500 signatures, the district amended its decision to rename the school the Abington Schwarzman High School. Instead, Schwarzman’s name would merely grace the new science and technology center.
The school board president, Raymond McGarry, accepted responsibility. “I was so focused on the positive aspects of this that, frankly, I was blinded,” he said.
Christine Anderson, a spokeswoman for Schwarzman’s private equity firm, the Blackstone Group, who attended the meeting, insisted that Schwarzman was all right with his name not being on the school. “The naming was inconsequential,” she said.
Under the amended agreement, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center for Science and Technology will feature plaques or photos of him. It is unclear if his portrait also will hang in the building.
A decade has passed since the global financial crisis. The economy is growing; unemployment is low. But emotions are still running hot about the role that big banks and other Wall Street firms — and their millionaire and billionaire leaders — play in America. Yawning inequality has cemented the feeling that just about everything is available for purchase by the very, very rich.
Schwarzman, with an estimated $12 billion fortune, is the embodiment of that caste. He has become a public supporter of President Donald Trump. That helped him land a major international investment last year, but it also made him a polarizing figure in Abington, which voted more than 2-to-1 for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Naming-rights deals are common, but they increasingly risk provoking fierce reactions — sometimes leading to embarrassing retreats by the wealthy patrons and the recipients of their largesse.
In 2015, former Citigroup chief executive Sanford I. Weill and his wife, Joan Weill, abandoned a $20 million donation to a small college in Paul Smiths, New York, after alumni fought their demand that the school modify its name to include Joan Weill’s. That same year, on a far smaller financial scale, a quarrel erupted in Beverly Hills, California, over an elementary school courtyard that was named after a local real estate agent who had donated tens of thousands of dollars.
Schwarzman has used his wealth to get his name attached to stuff near and far.
In 2007, he gave $100 million to the New York Public Library, which renamed its grand Fifth Avenue flagship the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. The Schwarzman Scholars, a $550 million international scholarship program in Beijing, was launched in 2013. And in New Haven, Connecticut, a $150 million gift established the Schwarzman Center at Yale University, a futuristic student building to feature new dining halls, meeting rooms, and performance space.
Schwarzman’s cash-for-naming-rights frenzy was underway as early as 2004, right here in Abington, when he donated $400,000 to the high school to build a new football stadium. It was named in his honor.
During his youth, his family moved to Abington from downtown Philadelphia. Abington was known for its good schools, and his mother wanted a better education for her children.
At Abington, Schwarzman ran track and cross-country, once logging a record time despite breaking his wrist partway through a race, and was elected student body president. After graduating in 1965, he attended Yale and then Harvard Business School. In 1985, he helped start Blackstone, which became the world’s largest private equity firm. He has credited Abington Senior High School with kick-starting his future.
By this decade, the high school needed an upgrade. Its main building dated back to the 1950s. It lacked anything resembling cutting-edge computer or science facilities.
Amy Sichel, the longtime Abington School superintendent, started searching for a benefactor to help bankroll a renovation project that the school board estimated would cost roughly $100 million. Schwarzman, one of the school’s most famous alumni, was an obvious target.
Sichel approached him about a new contribution in January 2017. Two months later, the Abington school board incorporated the Foundation for Abington School District, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization that could manage the potential gift, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
During the ensuing months, Sichel, a former school psychologist who is one of the highest-paid superintendents in Pennsylvania, discussed her high school’s needs with Schwarzman and his philanthropic team. He was especially interested in having the school embrace technology.
Talks were so cordial that Sichel was invited to Schwarzman’s 70th birthday celebration in February last year. The party, in Palm Beach, Florida, featured camels and a performance by rock star Gwen Stefani.
By the following January, Schwarzman had committed $25 million to the renovation, which would feature improved science labs, a new laptop for each student and coding classes available to all.
Schwarzman announced his donation at a gathering of 3,000 school superintendents in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 14. There was no mention that Schwarzman’s name would be plastered all over the school.
That was because that detail was still being discussed, Sichel said. So were other requirements contained in the original agreement, which was finalized on March 22 but never signed. The deal also stipulated that the renovated building should feature a portrait of Schwarzman that he commissioned and that his twin brothers, Mark and Warren Schwarzman, should have spaces named for them.
“Controversy over the naming and process aside, the need and desire for the funds still exists, and Mr. Schwarzman is unwavering in his desire to help,” said Anderson, the Blackstone spokeswoman.
In a phone interview on Friday, Sichel said that given the size of the gift, she and the board “were sure that it would come with some kind of naming opportunity.”
She said she was shocked by the visceral objections the name change inspired.
The outcry, raised by the school board’s ratification of the deal on March 27, started with social media posts. It culminated in angry emails to school officials and a petition to oppose the renaming.
School board meetings in Abington are normally dull affairs that sometimes last less than 15 minutes. But the gathering on Tuesday immediately took on a circuslike atmosphere.
Officials first gave an exhaustive presentation about the planned renovations. “This is a punishment!” shouted a woman in the audience, filled with locals in pressed khakis or Eagles jerseys. One woman clicked away on knitting needles.
When the floor was finally opened to the audience, it was nearly 9 p.m. Dozens of people queued for their three minutes at the microphone. Some read from prepared notes. Others cross-examined Sichel and the school board’s nine members.
The anger was not just about the school being renamed for Schwarzman. It was that the school board forged the deal in secret.
David Brooks, who graduated from the high school in 2000, said the board was one of three things: “brazen,” “sneaky” or “stupid.” If the school’s name could be auctioned for $25 million, he added, “what else is for sale?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.