$25 Million Gift to Abington School District — Where’s Public Input and Transparency?

A gift of $25 million from Blackstone CEO and co-founder Stephen Schwarzman recently made news as the largest donation ever given to a US public school. But did the gift to Abington School District by its billionaire alum come with “strings attached”?  At the very least, the gift was poorly handled by the Abington school board; giving new meaning to ‘lack of transparency’.

Although I had read about the Schwarzman multi-million dollar gift, I didn’t know the spider web of secrecy until I received the following email from Ray Clarke:

I’m sure that you are aware of the news around the $25 million donation to his alma mater by Abington alumnus and private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman.  At first sight, this gift was nothing but good news for the community, but has become highly controversial for the many conditions around the gift (including both an original requirement to rename the high school and also curriculum changes) and for the lack of transparency in the process.  Abington is taking steps to address its issues, but today’s news brings the issue home to T/E.

It turns out that T/E solicitor Ken Roos is not only on the Board of a secret foundation set up a year ago to receive the gift, but also is the solicitor for the Abington district that did not release any details of the agreement with Schwarzman until the day it was voted on, and is now refusing to release the agreement in response to Right-to-Know requests because it “needs legal review”.

This is the same solicitor who in 2015 fought TE community member Neal Colligan all the way to the PA Office of Open Records, who then ordered the District to release all records of the secret meetings relating to the actions taken in response to the Affordable Care Act.

It appears that Mr. Roos took nothing from that 2015 experience, and the community should have little faith that, should TESD ever have the good fortune to receive a large donation from a billionaire with an agenda, he will be the one that will help the district uphold its responsibilities to the community.  Instead, I’m hopeful that we can rely on the values of transparency and engagement that many on this forum have worked with the district to build.

And if anyone knows billionaire TE alum, they should be encouraged to chip in here, but – perhaps as important – to use their resources and position to support equitable funding for all our public schools.

Ray

As thanks for Schwarzman’s donation, Abington school board directors decided to rename the Abington Senior High School to Abington Schwarzman High School – outraging parents.  Sadly, the Abington School Board directors never sought public comment and didn’t give the community advance notice about the vote. After a backlash over the billionaire’s naming rights, the vote was rescinded.  With apologies and a promise to involve the community in the process, a new agreement is to be signed by Schwarzman and the school district.

As wonderful as the Schwarzman gift is, unfortunately it is mired in the darkness swirling over the re-naming of the high school, secret foundation, etc.

And Ray is quite right to point out that Abington School District’s solicitor Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine is also the solicitor for T/E.  In addition, Roos serves as solicitor for Lower Merion, Upper Perkiomen, Upper Dublin and Cheltenham school districts.  With the level of activity in Abington School District and the multiple lawsuits in Lower Merion and Tredyffrin-Easttown school districts, where is the ‘good counsel’ that these districts should expect from its solicitor?

Transparency and public input should be a hallmark for school districts – why isn’t Ken Roos delivering this counsel to his clients?

TE School Board, are you watching?

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18 Comments

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  1. Ken Roos is a real piece of work. He is the solicitor in Radnor too. A board member, much to the disliking of some including Ken and his henchmen, brought up the need for Policy on Booster Clubs. Students and parents pay a lot of money to participate and there is no financial transparency no back ground checks are done on adults working in and around the activities. Board member Julia Bohnenberger brought this to light and soon after a teacher filed a harassment claim against her and soon after that President Solomon asked her to resign.
    From mainlinemedianews:
    This is a big deal,” said Bohnenberger. “When I see stuff coming from our solicitor (about) unlawful harassment, this is a big deal. We’ve got this teacher complaint. (There are) concerns about me as a school board member. I’m troubled your solicitor is helping a teacher form a harassment complaint against me.”

    The solicitor helped a teacher form a complaint against her. You’ve got problems if this guy is your solicitor too.

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    Radnor1982 Reply:

    Booster Clubs have come a long way. No longer defined as a couple of bucks thrown together at the end of a season for pizza, booster Clubs are big business. They generate tens of thousands of dollars and are no more than a euphemism for pay to play. There is tremendous pressure on parents to contribute money many of them don’t have in order for their children to play. Most quietly drop out or quit rather than facing the public shame of not being able to afford to play.

    And where does all the money go? It’s anybodys guess. There is no financial transparency. Investigations have uncovered everything from big bonuses for coaches to private lessons for 2 or 3 players on the team.

    School boards are not aware of the proper role of Booster Clubs and they don’t ensure that proper procedures are in place for dealing with them.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Whoa!! I thought that Booster Clubs were in place for new team uniforms or special equipment??? Where’s the oversight? Does each sport have its own Booster Club? Forgive me, but I had a daughter who was a classically trained musician – no sports.

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  2. I am not a fan of Ken Roos.

    I have seen the school district fight too many legal battles that they have ended up loosing, was pretty obvious they were going to lose, and should never have been fought in the first place. Some of these battles were against the community.

    I have seen his arrogance directed towards our community on multiple occasions.

    I have seen other things that make me question why the district keeps him on.

    However, I am resigned to the fact that nothing will change as multiple school boards have seemed to be oblivious to not only his faults but Art McDonnell’s as well.

    [Reply]

    Barbara Jackson Reply:

    I attended a school board meeting where Doug Anestad courageously and valiantly stood up and questioned a lawyer from Ken Roos’s Firm about Ken’s firm not following directions from the Judge in the hazing scandal which burdened tax payers with settlements and alternative school fees. The judge was very angry.

    The lawyer representing Kens firm refused to answer Doug’s questions, put a large card board sign in front of his face, before a very loud, very obnoxious, siren was set off with the intention of distracting everyone in the room. The loud siren noise caused my ears to ring for a while.

    The most telling thing about this experience was not what I just described. The School Board Directors sat there……..quiet, calm…… as if they expected it and were instructed how to react. While the community was preoccupied with trying to get their senses back, Virginia Lastner adjourned the meeting. Virginia was not the President at the time.

    Doug, please correct me if anything I have said is not how it happened.

    [Reply]

    Citizen Reply:

    Doug,

    The school boards are not oblivious to Ken Roos and Art McDonnell and their shady actions and questionable values. What past and present Directors say about them in private is not the same as the support they receive in public.

    It’s a mystery why the Board keeps them on.

    [Reply]

  3. It is interesting to note that recently Colonial School District sent out a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a solicitor. Jeffrey T. Sultanik of Fox Rothschild was the solicitor in 2017. Rather than automatically renewing Sultanik’s contract, Colonial school board sent out an RFP. There were five candidates for the position, including Sultanik and Ken Roos — neither Sultanik or Roos received the job. Instead, Colonial appointed Michael Clarke, managing partner at Rudolph Clarke as solicitor.

    Interesting for two reasons; Roos and Sultanik did not get the Colonial School District solicitor job but more importantly, there was not an automatic contract renewal!

    I have never known the TE School Board to initiate an RFP process for the solicitor position in our district — the contract just rolls over year after year with Ken Roos. Wouldn’t an RFP for solicitor be prudent in T/E???

    [Reply]

  4. What are the curriculum conditions ?

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Included in the original proposed agreement, Schwarzman’s gift was to include naming rights to the high school and to the new science & technology building. The agreement required Abington to provide Chromebooks to every high school student and required all students to enroll in coding or computer literacy courses by 2022. The agreement required the district to provide semi-annual progress reports, including data, on the teaching of coding and other computer skills, and hold semi-annual in-person meetings with Schwarzman.

    My guess is that the public would not have been outraged if they had been told about the agreement and secret foundation, etc. in advance rather than after the fact. Regardless of what some view as egotistical demands of Schwarzman, there’s no denying the generosity and significance of $25 million! Just wish that the rollout of the gift was better handled by Abington. And I have seen no evidence that Schwarzman required the lack of transparency in exchange for the gift.

    But isn’t the real point that Abington’s solicitor (Roos) should have offered legal counsel encouraging public input/transparency surrounding the gift.

    [Reply]

  5. Good thing the billionaire earmarked the money for a specific purpose that benefits students. Hopefully he will follow through on report requirements and meeting updates on student progress.

    Otherwise, the money would be used for salary increases for everyone including Roos and management. They’ll probably do that anyway. What happens when the 25m runs out?

    [Reply]

    Average joe Reply:

    I’m thinking this can be a tax reducing effort. Fat chance

    [Reply]

  6. It would be interesting to know what benefit TESD is getting from their legal services contract with the Wisler law firm. The agreement with Wisler (Kenneth Roos et al) calls for payment of $180/hour for senior partners.

    TESD spends about $400,000 each year for legal services. That’s enough money to employ Roos for over 2,000 hours per year which is the equivalent of a full time job.

    Here is the cost for legal services (account 2350) for the CC districts:

    Coatesville Area SD $1,261,555
    Downingtown Area SD $779,150
    Tredyffrin-Easttown SD $398,362
    Great Valley SD $328,638
    West Chester Area SD $210,308
    Owen J Roberts SD $195,117
    Phoenixville Area SD $185,804
    Avon Grove SD $167,436
    Unionville-Chadds Ford $144,299
    Kennett Consolidated SD $60,678
    Octorara Area SD $50,576
    Oxford Area SD $33,634

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Thanks for this information Keith. I know that Coatesville School District has had its issues but $1.3 million in legal fees, oh my gosh! Curious — although Montgomery County, do you have any idea on the legal fees in Lower Merion? This would be very interesting given all of its legal battles — and Roos is the solicitor.

    [Reply]

    Keith Knauss Reply:

    The data above was a 3 year average of legal fees for 2014-2016. These were the 3 latest years available from the Dept of Ed and I wanted to smooth any sending spikes. The average for Lower Merion was $838K.

    But these averages were from years before the Wolk lawsuit. I have the Lower Merion Annual Financial Report from the year ending June 2017. Their legal fees jumped to $1.14M.

    You may or may not be familiar with the 2016 lawsuit against the Coatesville solicitor who allegedly overcharged the district. From the Daily Local:

    Attorneys who formerly represented the Coatesville Area School District have agreed to pay more than $400,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the school board to recover what it contended were excessive fees paid over a period of several years.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Ah yes, over-billing by the solicitor. I was thinking that it was the legal fees stemming from the criminal charges against a former superintendent. Thanks Keith.

  7. The position of School Board Director is nothing more than a pretext for Directors to Network, increase their business or ego gratification. They generally don’t have the interest, skill, the will, or the time to do the job.

    Administrations make the decisions and work in their interests first. They are very friendly with Solicitors who work closely with the Administration to make sure they are both comfortably taken care of. Solicitors make bad decisions, take wrong action, drawing out cases as long as possible to increase billable hours for their firms. School Administrations let them do it because they do the same thing.

    They laugh at taxpayers and they should.

    [Reply]

  8. Hi Pattye,

    I happened upon your website when I was looking for information about bullying in Comestoga High that a friend shared with me. I found the bullying (hazing) information, but then started exploring other articles and comments that you posted.

    I am very impressed with your “investigative reporting” as a concerned resident and parent, and I think that you are providing a very valuable service to the community. I live in West Goshen township, and I’m wondering if you know of someone providing similar types of information and commentary in my area. Please let me know.

    Thank you!

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Thanks for the nice words. Although I am not aware of someone in West Goshen providing local commentary, perhaps someone reading this does and will let us know.

    [Reply]

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