Post-Viewing “Bad Education” Q & A The Divagating Dolphin

Many of you, with time on your hands, watched the film Bad Education the night of its airing, April 25. Many of you have not. I had planned to view the film that evening, given the massive press build-up and “artificially contrived excitement,” thanks to its exceptional cast. Fortunately for all those vested in the film, it was the only novel game in town, absent theatres, cinemas, concerts, and sports venues. It was not meant to be.

Forestalling my viewing pleasure was the barrage of emails, texts, FB messages, and phone calls. Several days later, in happy seclusion, I watched it, knowing full well that the community would be sleeping-in.

In today’s FAQ’s, I have no intention of reviewing the movie in its entirety. However, it deserves a “coffee” light analysis, considering there has been a glut of commentary on the web and in print media, before and post airing. The film’s publicity department worked overtime in this age of Covid-19.

The community reactions expressed to me, were mixed:

“I could not make it all the way through the podcast, but thanks for sending it over.  I do not recall him once saying ‘I’m sorry’ to the District.”

“The movie was awful! It was awful!!

“I finally watched it and actually found it absorbing. Great acting. It whets my appetite for FOAL.”

“Saw the movie. Love Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. Didn’t like the changes in the script from reality.  Don’t think the bridge cost millions. Would love to know the true cost?”

“Having known nothing about the scandal, we found the whole thing jaw-dropping. I did come away wondering what happened to the young journalist student who did the research etc?  Quite a heroine.”  (And herein lies the danger of commingling reality with fiction, the perpetration of misinformation.)

            “Our Family watched the movie together-even my Mom, who doesn’t know the story or the players, said it was awful! Boring, poor choices for the characters, and not an accurate portrayal of the story. Can’t wait for your Book!”

            “This is all too crazy since I feel like I lived the last 13 years with you writing this story.  Would rather read your book!”

            “Underwhelmed, I’m completely ignoring this until your version is out.”

            “Thank you for all you have done to uncover this story.”

            “Total disappointment. Tell the people the truth. Expose the truth please!!!”

Those who have limited knowledge of the scandal enjoyed it for its entertainment value and its leads-Hugh Jackman (Tassone), Allison Janney (Gluckin), Ray Romano (Bob Spicer), and Geraldine Viswanathan (Rachel Bhargava).

Those who experienced the story in living technicolor did not. In many ways, it fell short of the hype. As an international reviewer commented, “No Deep Lessons in Bad Education.” It did not address the ills riddling the American public-school system: privilege, lack of accountability, systemic failures, and how the creation of a hospitable environment (discussed in depth in the book-The Happiness Factor) allowed for greed and corruption to fester and thrive. Merely a puff piece dressed up as a satirical, thriller, comedy, and drama, the story floats unanchored to a timeline, leaving viewers confused during the story’s telling.

Yet, on repeat viewings, the film’s satirical subliminal symbology, although limited, was evident, for example, the partially exposed posters in the main office read success and respect. Or when Tassone addressed the reporter, introspectively pontificating, “if you go public with something you don’t fully understand, it will come back on you…hard! This mistake if you make it, we will not be able to protect you, not me, not your teachers, because it will change everything. A lot of innocent people will get hurt. Right. These kinds of inquiries are like setting off a grenade. There’s fallout in the pursuit, in the frenzy, there’s collateral damage.WOW!!!

The arc of the film loosely adheres to salacious tabloid facts. Its imagery slick, and frenetically quick, paints a jigsawed picture of the neighborhood leaving little room for character development or time transitions. Perhaps the portrayal of these characters was intentionally one-dimensional, perhaps by overacted misinterpretation. The movie’s focus on the two antagonists, and protagonist, push the storyline forward. The supporting characters are illy defined. Their dialogue merely articulates the headlines as the thread of why and how this scandal happened. Ray Romano’s role as an inept school board president was nondescript.

In the opening improvised scene on the bleachers. Gluckin (Janney) jabs a pastrami sandwich at Tassone (Jackman). All he wanted was his smoothie, but in an undertone, admits that he loves deli. This scene was meant to reinforce their playful camaraderie, emphasize his dieting (hard to digest, since Jackman is tall and svelte, a non sequitur), and demonstrate that Tassone was just an everyman.

The film succeeded in amplifying the cartoonish aspect of all the main character’s personalities. Tassone’s slow transformation from the passionate educator who arrived in Roslyn in 1992, to the crook of 2004 was absent in this snapshot telling. The takeaway for the actors and the viewers alike, Tassone was a viperish boogeyman. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Once the book is completed, the TRUE story will come alive with insights, conversations, anecdotes, and details not found in an hour and a half movie version. With that said, let us examine the questions raised:

The Movie Part I What’s True? What’s Not True?

Did the student reporter break the story? Here we get a sense of movie making liberties. According to an interview with Collider.com, Jackman hired a researcher. Unfortunately, Jackman came to an erroneous conclusion “that it was all uncovered by the school newspaper.

The answer is a resounding NO. The reporter did not expose the scandal, Nor did the reporter go to the records storage area or Tassone’s apartment to follow up on leads. She had no leads and no access to documents used in the investigation. There was and still is an unidentified whistleblower.

Before drafting the article, the co-editor of the Hilltop Beacon interviewed me in my kitchen. Unbeknownst to the real cub reporter and something which I was not at liberty to share was that the Nassau County District Attorney had already initiated investigations in mid-February.

Was the scandal about the skywalk?  No. The skywalk had been completed years before the scandal broke. State auditors never investigated the $35 million construction bond. The first round of the scandal began when a Home Depot clerk telephoned the Roslyn School District’s business office to inquire about the use of the Roslyn charge card at his store in Selden, New York October 2002, two years before the 2004 exposure. The board consciously suppressed this revelation. Nor was the construction a point of competition with the surrounding high performing high schools. Was this satire? If so, it eluded most viewers.

Did the roofs leak? Yes. 22-gallon Rubbermaid bins, scattered throughout the buildings collected the water in cafeterias, hallways, and libraries. The cascades continued even after the completion of new construction.

Did Gluckin hold sway over Tassone by threatening to expose his double life? She might have, but others knew as well. This delicate bit of information could have impacted staff contract negotiations.

Who turned on whom? The film insinuates Tassone threw Gluckin under the bus. Not quite. In the end, it was the other way around. She became the canary who couldn’t stop singing.

Was he arrested in Vegas? No.

Were the parents as manipulative and/or dumb as portrayed? Absolutely NOT. Yet, several scenes leave the viewer with a sense that parental intervention was over the top. The parent who persistently demanded Tassone override the gifted program’s criteria to allow her dishearteningly portrayed, slow son entry, was unwarranted. Mocking does not constitute dark comedy. What it has done is cast a negative light on Roslyn’s parents.

At the book club, Tassone asks, “what do we all think of Martin Chuzzlewit?” The all-female attendees respond with dead silence. (Note: many men participated as well.) Cleaning up in the kitchen, the hostess disparagingly comments, “culture is not for everyone.” Is the takeaway, the parents/mothers are as dull as their kids? Tassone solicitously mutters, “ultimately, it was a really good discussion.”

Personally, what I found most interesting was the book choice. Martin Chuzzlewit is not one of Dickens’s better-known works. Seth Pecksniff is the lead character in Martin Chuzzlewit. There is a pop-out quote in the NYMag article taken from my 3-hour interview with Robert Kolker, the author.  I call Tassone, “Pecksniffian.” You connect the dots.

General Questions Part II

Did Tassone really introduce innovations that raised the standing of our schools? These sentiments were echoed by several teachers, “He walked into a high performing district. He didn’t create it.” We were a progressive school before his arrival. Kids always got into ivy league schools. Twelve years before Tassone’s arrival Penn accepted 26 members of the class of 1980. As an educator, I moved here because of the district’s outstanding reputation. That was in the pre-Tassone era, thirty-seven years ago.

Did Roslyn students get a bad education? The title Bad Education’s isn’t original. There is a long running British TV show with the same name-Bad Education. The film’s information was lifted from the NYMag article Bad Superintendent written by Robert Kolker in September of 2004. The reality, that even the screenwriter admits, is a Roslyn education is exceptional.

According to Coach Bayer’s second podcast, Tassone said that Jackman said he was a “good superintendent.” Was he really or was it all smoke and mirrors? How could Jackman even make that call? Was it based on his research assistant’s assessment, deduced from the little he read? Superintendent responsibilities include facility, curricula, staff reviews. Many times, Tassone would stroll in, at 3 pm, wearing sweats. School opened at 7:30 a.m.

The physical structure was figuratively and literally raining down. Students and staff were getting ill from diluted cleaning products and mold infestation. The curricula, never updated, in seventeen years. Outdated textbooks were NYC public school hand-me-downs. As the Special Education population increased, the school never filed for US Department of Education grants. The list goes on.

Smoke and mirrors. A handful of new programs did not make up for the 12-14 years of neglect. So, NO Mr. Jackman, Frank Tassone did not meet his obligations as a superintendent. And, NO, Frank, was not a good superintendent. The buck did not stop cascading, right up until the day of his resignation, when he deflected and ran.

Was Roslyn ever a school of Excellence? In 1999, the Wall Street Journal ranked Roslyn in the top ten schools nationwide. In the movie, at the November 2002, self-congratulatory board meeting, the front page of that months Hilltop Beacon is flashed. The barely visible date line is the only point in time indicator. Two banners phalanx the five seated trustees. In actuality, the board is made up of seven members. The stage right banner identifies the locale-the Roslyn Public Schools, and to the left in royal blue bunting “Excellence in Education, self-proclaimed. We were never nominated as a United States Department of Education Blue Ribbon School? Why? The answer all too obvious, with the acknowledgement came federal auditing.

Did Tassone have the ability to sway admission numbers at the Ivies or anywhere else for that matter? Perhaps, perhaps not. Only his hairdresser would know for sure. But here is a view from the other side of the country a 1980 graduate of Roslyn, “I don’t know how many were accepted – but it was over 30.  All of the other Ivies also accepted a lot of grads.”  By my sons’ graduation years 1999 and 2001 many Ivies still accepted applicants in the double digit. Today, Roslyn’s college acceptance is on a par with the national rate.

Did property values increase because of Tassone? According to many local realtors, property values did NOT reflect the status of the schools but rather the economic fluctuations of the market.

Why come out of hiding and appear in the podcasts? I am not in a position to judge Tassone’s state of thinking. He has lived a semi-reclusive life for years. However, even though I am quite sure the actors, screenwriter, and director will be up for an Emmy or Oscar, the golden statuette will go to Frank Tassone for staying true to himself, the Greatest Showman. His performance, during the Coach Mike interviews, was pathetically sycophantic. A whiny little boy still seeking celebrity.

Why were they allowed to collect their pensions? The film’s closing screenshot, a sort of shvach (weak) epilogue, is a single sentence. “Due to an oversight in New York State pension law, Frank Tassone is still entitled to $173, 495.04 a year.” An inaccurate interpretation. Even though a municipal employee is found guilty of a felony against a said municipality, they were still entitled to collect their retirement monies under the 2004 New York State pension law.

Can the retirement pension laws be changed? In a recent conversation with State Assemblyman Charles Lavine, the law has been changed. A felon may no longer collect pension, however, Tassone and Company were grandfathered in.

Why didn’t the criminals serve their full prison terms? They were released early for good behavior and for health reasons. I assume the state no longer wanted to pay. They seemed to no longer be a threat to society. The last year of Tassone’s minimum sentence became the year of parole, garishly distorting the notion of what constitutes punishment.

If you are still baffled by Bad Education’s portrayal of the events, please feel free to post in the comment section.  I will answer any lingering questions with one caveat, I will not reveal the intimate details which you can only find when reading FOAL. Please enjoy.

Links to Coach Mike Bayer’s Podcast Part 2 the link to Part 1 can be found at my Pre-Viewing Blog https://dailyvoice.com/new-york/mountpleasant/schools/real-bad-education-superintendent-speaks-out-about-hbo-movie-hugh-jackmans-portrayal/787257/

Copyright 2020 Judith D. Winters, content may not be used without express permission of the author

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