They say the truth is stranger in fiction. And in the case of HBO's Bad Education (April 25) — a story about embezzlement, inappropriate romantic entanglements, and corruption in one New York school district — the old adage rings true. But just how much of Bad Education is based on a true story?
Bad Education recounts the sordid events leading up to the arrest of much-loved school superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) on charges of larceny and fraud. Tassone presided over the Roslyn school district of New York, and during his tenure, he earned a reputation as a good leader. The schools under his jurisdiction reported high college acceptance rates, strong test scores, and, more importantly to the story, a high financial return from families more than happy to pay for the apparent higher quality education.
In the film, one of the students in Tassone's district, Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), is assigned to write a puff piece on him. After meeting him and receiving some eerily prescient advice from Tassone to really dig in to her story, she manages to uncover evidence pointing to a multi-year, multi-million dollar embezzlement scandal, with the beloved superintendent right at the top.
Tassone had embezzled some $11.2 million from the school district. He wasn't alone in his greed, however, as his business assistant, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) had also taken a cut of the embezzled funds, something to the tune of $4 million. Others, such as Gluckin's son and niece, as well as Tassone's partner, were also guilty of taking a cut of that money.
What makes Bad Education so intriguing is that it's not only a story that's ripped from real headlines, it's a story written by someone who lived through the events and fallout firsthand. Mike Makowsky, Bad Education's writer, was in middle school when Tassone was arrested in 2004. Tassone had a reputation of personally going out to meet each of his students and their parents, something Makowsky recounted to Vogue, saying, "Frank Tassone was the first person I met in Roslyn." He went on to explain, "... it was a really sort of complicated, awful thing: This very affable, charismatic person who placed a real emphasis on the quality of education and helping students, then at the same time, you hear that he’s been taking money from the coffer and was part of this $11.2 million [larceny] scheme. It really shocked everyone in my community, and there were these really deep-seated feelings of betrayal."
That sense of betrayal ran deep. In 2006, one student told the New York Times, "Kids aren’t proud to say they’re from Roslyn anymore." Another said, "People you meet say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of Roslyn. It’s been on the news.’" That report on Tassone's sentencing also details what he spent his share of the money on, which included things like "luxury vacations, gambling junkets, fees for his Upper East Side apartment, dry cleaning bills and a vacation home."