In New York’s Westchester County, residents are objecting to the installation of plaques featuring donors’ names in Scarsdale High School at a price tag of $38,000. The donors being commemorated have each given in excess of $10,000, but some members of the community argue that the practice sends the wrong message to students, faculty, and others attending a public school. Since the district lacks an official policy on such naming, it’s skirted any public debate of the matter.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Wall Street billionaire Stephen A. Schwarzman offered his former high school a $25 million gift to fund a major renovation, asking that the school be renamed “Abington Schwarzman High School” in his honor. He also asked for approval rights on the contractors, input into the school’s logo, and some spaces named after his brothers. Abington residents showed up in force at a five-hour school board meeting marked, according to a report in the New York Times, by “shouting, name-calling and more than one demand for officials to resign.” A petition to dump the renaming deal drew 1,500 signatories who objected to the lack of transparency and backdoor deal-making in the name of residents who had not been consulted.
“I just think there’s too much influence about big money, Wall Street money, in our society,” complained Robert Durham, whose two children attended the school.
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, apparently, loves a plaque, too; the high school’s football stadium is already named for him in return for a gift of $400,000.
Dr. Amy Sichel, the school superintendent, said she and the board had been sure that the gift would require “some kind of naming opportunity.” She was shocked by the reactions of the public, who likely feel like they have been paying all along for this public institution and should have some voice in the matter. The fact that Sichel attended the billionaire’s 70th birthday fete probably didn’t help impressions that the deal was forced in relative secrecy. According to the New York Times, David Brooks, a graduate of the school’s class of 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?”—Ruth McCambridge