Questioning the Story:
Was the Roslyn School District really one of the top-ranked districts in the country?
Yes. During Superintendent Frank A. Tassone's 12-year long reign, Long Island's Roslyn School District, which was home to approximately 3,300 students, had become one of the top-ranked districts in the country, at least according to The Wall Street Journal in 1999, who put it in sixth place. The Bad Education true story confirms that not only did the affluent district see a rise in its ranking, housing prices went up too as a result, which pleased residents. Tassone, who is portrayed by Hugh Jackman in the HBO movie, was well-liked. He ate lunch with high school students on a regular basis and even led a book club for parents in the district.
Actor Hugh Jackman and the real Frank Tassone, who had been well-liked by the people of Long Island's Roslyn School District.
Is Bad Education based on a book?No, the HBO movie is based on a New York Magazine article by Robert Kolker. While researching the Bad Education fact vs. fiction, we learned that the screenplay for the film was written by a former Roslyn student, Mike Makowsky, who was a pupil in the district at the time of the scandal.
How much money did Frank Tassone and Pamela Gluckin embezzle from the Roslyn School District?
In 2006, Superintendent Frank A. Tassone (portrayed by Hugh Jackman) and the assistant superintendent for business, Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney), were sent to prison for their roles in an embezzlement scheme that funneled $11.2 million from the Roslyn School District. They were two of six people who pled guilty in connection to the scheme. Four were district employees, including Pamela Gluckin's niece, Debra Rigano, who was a business clerk for the school district. It is believed that Frank Tassone personally siphoned $2.4 million from the district and Pamela Gluckin admitted to stealing $4.3 million herself. The office of state Comptroller Alan Hevesi alleged that over 25 school officials, as well as their families and friends, benefited from the embezzlement scheme, which lasted more than a decade (AP News). They are listed below.
How did Superintendent Frank Tassone and his accomplices rip off the Roslyn School District?A Bad Education HBO fact check confirms that one of the primary ways they stole from the district was by keeping a fake set of books and recording seemingly standard payments to businesses for school supplies and services, sending the money instead to family and friends. As the money dwindled, their requests for budget increases were approved by the school board, largely because of the students' outstanding test scores. The district was nationally ranked, had a 95% graduation rate, and parents were happy that their kids were getting into competitive colleges, including Ivy League schools. In turn, their property values had also increased. Yet, like in the movie, Roslyn High's roof leaked, and it should have been more obvious to the community as a whole that something wasn't right.
During Frank Tassone's tenure as superintendent, Roslyn High School was considered one of the top schools in the nation, with graduating students moving on to some of the top colleges in the country. The real Roslyn High School is pictured at the top.
What did Frank Tassone and Pamela Gluckin do with the money they stole?Like in the HBO movie, the real Frank Tassone and Pamela Gluckin used the money to indulge in lavish lifestyles. The Bad Education true story reveals that Tassone allegedly put $1,800-per-night hotel rooms on the school's tab, traveling to Boston, New Orleans, London, the Caribbean, and taking gambling trips to Las Vegas 2-3 times a year. He drove a Mercedes, bought jewelry, wore expensive suits, rented an Upper East Side apartment, and had lobster tails served at luncheons. He billed the school for thousands of dollars in dry cleaning, weight-loss treatment, and flights on a Concorde supersonic airliner (a round-trip flight from New York to London could cost more than $8,000).
The HBO movie shows Pamela Gluckin using her spoils to pay for a home renovation. In real life, she renovated her $2.1 million home in the Hamptons. In addition, she had an $840K waterfront home in Bellmore, NY and a $2.7 million vacation home in Florida. She also used the stolen money for a Jaguar (with a vanity plate), to buy Jet Skis, and to purchase $14,033 in pet supplies. She did give her son a school district credit card, which he used to buy construction materials, mainly at Home Depot.
Other expenditures made by district officials at the taxpayers' expense included $18,605 for artwork from Galerie Lassen on Maui in Hawaii, $81,637 to repay a college loan, $4,045 to a company for such items as a pedicure and manicure kit, and an Aquabot Ultra Pool Cleaner with remote control, among other things (NY Times). A breakdown of the misappropriated funds is displayed below.
Did a student journalist really break the story?Yes, but in answering the question, "How accurate is Bad Education?" we discovered that the student's name was changed from Rebekah Rombom to Rachel Kellog for the movie, and actress Geraldine Viswanathan's character in the film is only partially based on Rombom (pictured below). In the movie, she sets out to write an article about a skywalk the school is planning to have built, telling Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) that it's just a puff piece. Tassone tells her, "It's only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece," which prompts her to dig deeper, eventually discovering the embezzlement story.
The real Roslyn High School journalist, Rebekah Rombom, was co-editor of the school's newspaper, the Hilltop Beacon. She was a senior in March 2004 when she wrote and published a story about the assistant superintendent for business, Pamela Gluckin, who had been quietly fired by the school board for embezzling $250,000 from the district (it was later discovered Gluckin likely stole more than $4.6 million). Rombom had been tipped off to the story and then attended a school board meeting where she gathered more information.
"I did some interviews in the process," Rombom told The New York Times. "[The movie character] Rachel does a little more investigative reporting than I did. I had tried to do a Freedom of Information Act request to dig a little bit deeper on some of the documents that I thought revealed more detail about what was going on, but I couldn't figure out how to do it in time, so I reported the facts that I had from interviews that I was able to do before we published."
Rombom's article meant that the Hilltop Beacon was the first media outlet to report on the district's embezzlement scandal, which would eventually also lead to the convictions of Superintendent Frank Tassone and four others.
Actress Geraldine Viswanathan's character (left) is partially based on Rebekah Rombom (right), who is pictured in the decade following the publication of her article. Photos: Netflix, Medium
Did Frank Tassone keep his own crimes a secret after Pamela Gluckin was caught?Yes, and while it's not shown in the Bad Education HBO movie, he asked that the court be lenient with Gluckin. At the same time, he condemned her actions, even when he was knee-deep in grand larceny himself. The real Frank Tassone urged Gluckin to resign before her trial, assuring her that she would still get $160,000 a year as a tenured administrator.
Did Frank Tassone offer a tearful apology at his sentencing?
In studying the Bad Education fact vs. fiction, we discovered that Frank Tassone was more remorseful at his real-life sentencing. He tearfully apologized for stealing the money. According to authorities, the former Roslyn School District Superintendent stole in excess of $2.2 million himself, which took him 20 years to repay (a separate state audit put the number at $2.4 million). "I think he should serve the maximum sentence," said former Roslyn School Board President William Costigan at the time, who partially inspired Ray Romano's character in the HBO movie. "We have become the poster boys for school scandals" (The Boston Globe).
What were Frank Tassone and Pamela Gluckin's punishments for embezzling the school district's money?In September 2006, Pamela Gluckin pled guilty to first-degree grand larceny and spent close to five years in prison. Frank Tassone pled guilty to both first-degree and second-degree grand larceny and spent approximately three years and four months behind bars, becoming a free man in February 2010 at age 63. To the ire of people in the Roslyn community, Tassone was released eight months and four days prior to his minimum sentence of four years. He had been facing a maximum of 12 years in prison. -Newsday
Actress Allison Janney (left) in the Bad Education
HBO movie and the real Pam Gluckin (right).
Is Frank Tassone a gay man?
Yes. Like in the movie, the true story confirms that Frank Tassone told those who knew him that his wife had died. He even reportedly kept an old wedding photo in his office. The movie implies that this was to hide his homosexuality. However, the real Frank Tassone had actually been married to a woman in real life, who he had met in college. His wife, Joanne, whom he says he loved very much, passed away from cancer in 1973. About six months later, he found himself visiting a gay bar. "I always had an interest; I used to be inquisitive about men," Tassone said on The Coach Mike Podcast. "I always found both men and women attractive, but I used to find some men even more attractive."
As details about his crimes began to emerge, it was revealed that he had been in a domestic partnership with a man named Stephen Signorelli for 33 years. In the film, he also starts a fictional fling with a former student named Kyle (Rafael Casal), who is employed as a bartender in Las Vegas. While the real Tassone told The Coach Mike Podcast that he did have a fling with someone in Vegas, he said that it was never with a former student. Tassone said that it was during a period when he and his partner had an open relationship.
In order to gain leniency during his real-life sentencing, Tassone agreed to testify against his partner, Stephen Signorelli, who was also involved in the embezzlement scheme. Signorelli's computer software company was paid more than $800,000 by the Roslyn School District. People in the community say that they long suspected that Tassone might be gay. -Vanity Fair
Is it true that Frank Tassone still receives a pension?Unbelievably, yes, he continues to receive an annual state pension of a whopping $173,495.04 per year, as he did while in prison, which is essentially being paid by the taxpayers he stole from (to their disgust). The shocking number is a reflection of the control that unions have over districts. Not only do bad teachers stay employed, employees who steal millions from a district are still guaranteed lucrative pensions. In fact, all of the employees who were caught up in the embezzlement scheme receive pensions, including Pamela Gluckin who receives $54,998 annually. Gluckin gives half of her pension to the Roslyn School District in an effort to pay back what she stole.
Did any of the real people participate in the making of Bad Education?
In researching the Bad Education true story, we learned that the HBO movie does have a direct link to Long Island's Roslyn School District, where the scandal unfolded. Mike Makowsky, the movie's screenwriter, is a former Roslyn High School student. He first met Superintendent Frank A. Tassone (Hugh Jackman in the film) when his family moved to Roslyn from Queens. Makowsky was six years old then and in the first grade. Tassone took the time to meet each new student personally and had come to evaluate Makowsky's reading ability. He had Makowsky read The Very Hungry Caterpillar aloud as he took notes. "It stands out that a public school superintendent would take the time to meet thousands of his students," says Mike Makowsky, today 28. He was in middle school at the Time of Tassone's arrest in 2004.
Makowsky says that while conducting his research for the film, he interviewed around 25 former and current teachers, members of the faculty, and parents who were part of the PTA. He says that he decided against trying to get in touch with Tassone himself. "I had an incredible education there," admits Makowsky. "And I think it's in large part, strangely, due to this man, Frank Tassone, who recruited most of the teachers I had. We were one of the top-ranked schools in the country when Tassone was arrested." -Vanity Fair
As for the Roslyn School District, they've released a statement disavowing any involvement with the film. "While the film is purportedly meant to entertain, it's important to remember that what occurred in our school district was far from entertaining. ... The scandal shook our community deeply." -Newsday