Brian O'Neill: For $30 million, school's name is all yours

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If anyone out there has $30 million, you can probably get your name on a Pittsburgh public school.

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, the hyper-ambitious college scholarship program that's all but looking under seat cushions for more cash, concedes its latest fundraising ploy is a Hail Mary pass.

"They seldom get caught," Mr. Ghubril said. "But every now and then one gets caught."

Look no further than the chairman of the Promise board, Franco Harris, for proof, he said. That statue at the airport of the Steelers legend making his Immaculate Reception shows that a downfield receiver can come out of nowhere.

This one's still hiding, though, while the scholarship fund tries to entice someone to pony up tens of millions of dollars.

"It's still an idea," Mr. Ghubril said. "Nobody's standing in line."

The Pittsburgh school board very quietly made this possible in 2011 with a revision to its naming policy. Historically, schools have been named for their neighborhoods, historical figures and those who have "made an outstanding contribution either in education or to the community where the school is located."

Those contributions weren't financial, but the board gave itself this additional naming option: "persons or entities that have either supported the School District or The Pittsburgh Promise through distinguished effort or substantial financial gift."

A new Promise brochure now proclaims that for the low, low price of $30 million to $99 million, a donor can get the "naming opportunity of a high profile school."

Mr. Ghubril said he has pitched the idea to a couple of people, and he added with a bit more hope than realism that "there are some for whom $30 million is pocket change." Thus far, any such humongous pockets have remained zipped.

Maybe they'll never open. I'm not sure how I'd feel if the exchange of $30 million for a school name does take place. The board added all sorts of stipulations about final approval and not granting naming rights to anyone who made their money through tobacco, booze, illegal drugs or weapons, but I guess I'm still old-fashioned. I believe that $30 million should buy you a slugging outfielder for a season or three, not your name above the schoolhouse door.

I mean, come on. "Here's your money; where's my school?" -- is that the example we should set for students?

"That concern resonates with my heart and with my spirit," said Mr. Ghubril, a Presbyterian minister. "Where I want my name to be written is on people's hearts, and I have a feeling I'm not the only one who has such a mindset."

A sweet sentiment, but that won't get his job done. In late 2007, UPMC pledged up to $100 million, at $10 million per year, to fund the Promise. The catch is that the Promise has to raise $1.50 for every $1 it gets from UPMC. It still needs about $77 million if it's to reach its goal of $250 million.

Making what Mr. Ghubril has called a "really heavy lift" $30 million lighter could make the remaining fundraising feel like a layup.

The Promise already has provided college scholarships to almost 4,800 graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools and city charter schools. Those who have met the minimum requirements of a 2.5 grade point average and 90 percent attendance, and have been accepted to a Pennsylvania college or trade school, have been awarded up to $10,000 per year toward tuition and other school expenses.

So I can hardly argue with Mr. Ghubril that a sizable contribution to our native sons' and daughters' futures would be an honorable act. If my math is right, $30 million would cover 3,000 more annual scholarships or 750 four-year runs.

It's just the potential quid pro quo -- welcome to Joe Billionaire Middle School, kids -- that sounds like fingernails on the blackboard.

Maybe I should lighten up. This is the America we live in, and perhaps our children will be better off learning that early. A front-page story Wednesday told us that though our economic growth continues to be as strong or stronger than other countries', only a small percentage of households is benefiting from that.

So let me wish that a benevolent donor of merit steps forward. A Bruce Springsteen or a Bill Cosby Creative and Performing Arts School? Fine. A Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez Science and Technology Academy? No.

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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