The new HBO film “Bad Education” deals with the largest school-system embezzlement in U.S. history and tells a story that at times seems too crazy to be true. But the film, which stars Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone, the school district superintendent in Roslyn, New York, and Allison Janney as Pamela Gluckin, the assistant superintendent, is indeed based on real events leading up to Gluckin’s resignation in 2002 and Tassone’s arrest in 2004.
Still, “Bad Education” plays fast and loose with the facts in some areas. The film compresses the time frame so that Tassone is implicated shortly after Gluckin’s resignation; in real life, two years elapsed before suspicion turned to Tassone. It gives new names to a number of major characters, including Gluckin’s son and niece, the school’s auditor and both of Tassone’s boyfriends; and it turns other characters (like the one played by Ray Romano) into composites.
Here’s a look at some of the things that are true, and some that are not.
Did Dr. Frank Tassone really improve the Roslyn High School’s national ranking to No. 4 in the country?
No, but he came close. According to “The Bad Superintendent,” the 2004 New York magazine story on which “Bad Education” was based, the school was ranked No. 6 in the United States by the Wall Street Journal in April of 2004, four months before Tassone’s arrest.
Did Tassone ever get a facelift over Christmas break?
Maybe. New York magazine reported that Roslyn parents noticed facelift scars and evidence of other cosmetic surgery to his eyes, but it did not specify when those things took place.
Was a hardware store clerk really the first to become suspicious about school district spending?
Yes. According to the New York Times, a clerk at the Home Depot store in Selden, New York, 35 miles east of Roslyn, became suspicious when John McCormick, the son of Pamela Gluckin, put $85,000 of construction supplies on a Roslyn School District credit card at that and other Home Depot stores, and then had them delivered to a residential address even further from Roslyn. (John McCormick is given the name Jimmy McCarden in the film, which also locates his suspicious transactions at an Ace Hardware store rather than a Home Depot.)
Did a reporter for the high school newspaper, the Hilltop Beacon, break the story?
Yes, but not in the way the movie depicts it. In the film, Rachel Bhargava, a junior reporter for the school paper, is assigned to do a puff piece on a proposed building project at the school. But against the wishes of her editor, she begins digging in school files and uncovers a broad-ranging pattern of false expenses and fraud.
In real life, the story was written by reporter Rebekah Rombom, a senior who was one of the paper’s two co-editors. According to an account of the events that Rombom wrote for the New York Times just before Tassone’s arrest, she had received a tip from the other co-editor about allegations that embezzlement had led to the firing of Gluckin. Her story on those allegations, most likely prompted by an anonymous letter that had been sent to law enforcement, ran after the Board of Education had already addressed the allegations at a public meeting.
The Hilltop Beacon story did prompt other news organizations to investigate, but the digging into public records to find evidence of fraud was done by professional reporters from publications like the Long Island newspaper Newsday, which printed its own timeline of the events in 2006.
Did Frank flee to Las Vegas when his finances were put under scrutiny? And was he arrested there with his dancer boyfriend?
Yes and no. According to the New York magazine story on which the film is based, during March and April of 2004, when suspicion began building, Tassone did take several trips, including to Florida, California, Puerto Rico and Las Vegas (three times).
But a New York Times story from July 7, 2004, the day after his arrest, reported that Tassone surrendered in New York and was taken to the county courthouse in Mineola.
Was his Vegas boyfriend a former student?
No. He was a motorcycle salesman and exotic dancer. Tassone has said that the film’s decision to make him a former student “bothered me terribly.”
Was Frank Tassone caught charging the school for tickets to London on the Concorde for himself and his longtime domestic partner?
Yes. But the film is not exactly correct when Ray Romano’s character describes them as “first class” tickets, because the Concorde – a narrow plane with only room for four seats across – did not have separate classes of service.