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Testing Horace Mann

Back at school the next morning, McGuire burst into tears during class and went home early. Bienstock e-mailed Kelly. Jeffrey better produce the tape or back off, he wrote. That evening, Kelly called McGuire and told her that the rumors of a tape were unfounded. Before hanging up, Kelly expressed his unwavering support to McGuire.

On Friday, the Record ran McGuire’s letter. Instead of expressing contrition, as the board chair had wanted, McGuire defended herself. “I make no apologies for integrating race and gender into my classes,” she wrote. “I should point out that all the other U.S. History teachers do the same—apparently without being ridiculed. To single me out is revealing, and is a sign that parts of the Horace Mann community are not as enlightened as they pretend to be … Instead of taking stock of the damage done to the community by these postings, some students, with the implied consent of some adults in the community, shifted the blame, cried victim, and wrapped themselves in rights they are not entitled to.” She concluded: “Is there anything more adolescent and intellectually craven than this?”

In November, the school cleared McGuire of making anti-Semitic remarks. Two weeks later, the administration doled out punishments. Except for the creator of the “Men’s Issues” club, who withdrew from the school, the involved students received slaps on the wrist. Two kids served one-day suspensions; the rest were asked to say sorry. The creator of the anti-McGuire club apologized to McGuire profusely in person. In a memo to the faculty, the deans acknowledged the administration’s slow response. “As we move ahead from the Facebook ‘episode,’ ” they wrote, “we recognize that our challenge to create an environment in which such behavior does not occur again has only begun.”

If the new rules of the Internet were some of the forces that were creating chaos in the Horace Mann community, another, unquestionably, was money. For much of the past decade, Horace Mann’s central preoccupation, like that of many private schools, has been fund-raising. In 1998, the board, then chaired by Michael Hess, a onetime partner at the white-shoe law firm Chadbourne and Parke (and a founding partner of Rudy Giuliani’s consulting firm), launched the most ambitious expansion in the school’s history. The master plan for the school’s eighteen-acre Riverdale campus included designs for a 45,000-volume library, a 640-seat theater, a renovated middle school, a new cafeteria, and an outdoor “Shakespeare Garden” planted with flora referenced in the playwright’s works.

Horace Mann’s endowment was $60 million at the time, but the construction budget topped $100 million. To finance the project, the school floated $103 million in bonds certified by the city’s Industrial Development Agency over the next five years. According to documents filed with the IDA, Horace Mann’s total debt will reach $339 million, including principal and interest, over the 42-year life of the bonds. The board has since raised tuition (now $29,000) and has completed two major fund-raising campaigns, including selling the naming rights to its new buildings (lockers at $500,000, computer classrooms $150,000 a pop, the orchestra pit for $250,000).

One consequence of the debt has been the consolidation of wealth on the board. The last full-time educator to serve as a trustee, Barnard dean Marjorie Silverman, left the board in 1999. Nowadays the board is dominated by lawyers, investment bankers, and real-estate developers, and, possibly as a consequence, the school’s relations with its teachers have suffered.

In the fall of 2004, the board informed Horace Mann teachers that financial pressures would require a cut in their health insurance. (According to tax filings, Horace Mann spent $7.2 million on faculty benefits in 2004, a little more than the $5.7 million financial-aid budget. That year, the school’s payments on construction reached $7.3 million.) In one tense meeting in November 2004, Steven Friedman, then board treasurer, chided the instructors for making “poor consumer choices” with their health coverage (citing Celebrex, the popular but costly arthritis drug). If they would not downgrade their health plans, the board might be forced to cut financial aid, he said. Following the meeting, a long-serving photography teacher sent a letter to then–board chair Robert Katz, Goldman Sachs’ general counsel, and the faculty objecting to the cuts. “I can’t begin to tell you how many faculty members I’ve heard wonder that baseball diamonds are more important than faculty health in the long-term future of the School,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, the board was facing resistance from faculty during the search for a new head of school. In April 2004, Eileen Mullady, who had run Horace Mann since 1995, announced she was leaving to run a private school outside San Diego. The board told faculty that they could have an advisory role but would have no voting rights in the final selection. Some faculty members bristled at the board’s secrecy, circulating a petition that protested the search. The board rejected the entreaties and narrowed the initial pool of candidates down to four finalists.