When Mike Makowsky moved with his family to Roslyn from Queens as a first-grader, the first person he met there was Frank A. Tassone, the school district’s much-loved superintendent. The six-year-old newcomer couldn’t have known that Tassone was on a mission to turn Roslyn into one of the country’s best and most prestigious school districts, or that few school administrators make a point of personally assessing the reading level of every incoming student. What Makowsky remembers is reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” aloud to an attentive man with a notepad.
“It stands out that a public school superintendent would take the time to meet thousands of his students,” says Makowsky, now 28. “That really speaks to the function he served as an educator in our community.”
Years after that first meeting, in 2006, the affluent neighborhood of Roslyn would be reeling from a scandal that ended with Tassone and another administrator, Pamela Gluckin, sentenced to prison for their part in an embezzlement scheme that sucked $11 million from the district. As for Makowsky, he would become the screenwriter of “Bad Education,” a new HBO film starring Hugh Jackman as Tassone, Allison Janney as Gluckin and Geraldine Viswanathan as a fictionalized version of the very real student journalist who broke the story in the school’s own newspaper. Based on a New York magazine article by Robert Kolker, and filmed in and around Roslyn, “Bad Education” airs on HBO Saturday, Apr. 25, at 8 p.m.
“Bad Education” earned strong reviews when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. The Hollywood Reporter called it “engagingly devious,” while Variety praised Jackman’s performance, calling it “the best work he’s ever done.” With its themes of affluence, status and college-admissions gamesmanship, the film seemed sure to find a distributor for a theatrical release, though one never materialized. With theaters across the country shuttered and would-be moviegoers stuck at home, however, HBO’s subsequent purchase of the film — for a reported $20 million — could now be called fortuitous.
Local interest in the film has been high since news of its production was announced in 2018. The school district released a statement disavowing any involvement with the production. “While the film is purportedly meant to entertain, it’s important to remember that what occurred in our school district was far from entertaining,” the statement read. “A former superintendent and several accomplices conspired to steal approximately $11.2 million meant for our children’s education. The scandal shook our community deeply.”
“I get it,” Makowsky says of the district’s posture toward his movie. He stresses that the film “bears zero reflection” on the school as it stands today, but adds that the story of Tassone remains worth telling. “I think to just try to ignore or erase it from our shared history is not the right impulse.”
Makowsky says he began working on “Bad Education” after graduating from Brown University and moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting. “I always thought it would be fun to write a film that took place in Long Island and reflected the perspective of my childhood,” he says. “And I always remembered the story of the Roslyn school scandal.”
Returning to his hometown in 2015, Makowsky says, he purchased a subscription to Newsday — the first newspaper to break the story — and delved into its archives. He also interviewed roughly 25 former and current teachers, faculty members and parents that had been on the PTA. “I kind of outlined the majority of the script out of my high school cafeteria,” he says. “Unbeknownst to the administration, clearly.”
What Makowsky developed was the story of a well-to-do town whose status is measured in housing prices, which in turn are driven by the ranking of its school district. As all those numbers rose under Tassone (the school district was at one point ranked sixth in the country by The Wall Street Journal), nobody seemed aware that he and Gluckin were using school money to their upscale lifestyles. In the film, Janney’s Gluckin finances a home renovation on the school’s dime; in Kolker’s article, Tassone allegedly billed the school for trips on the Concorde, $1,800-per-night hotel rooms and thousands of dollars in dry cleaning.
Gluckin pled guilty to first-degree grand larceny in September 2006 and served nearly five years in prison. Tassone also pled guilty, to first- and second-degree larceny, and was sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison in 2006. He was released eight months early, in February 2010. Remarkably, he still receives a state pension of more than $173,000 per year.
And yet, “Bad Education” includes scenes of Jackman’s Tassone studying late at night to memorize the names of his students and parents, taking the time to help a distraught mother with a learning-challenged son and — ironically — pushing that student reporter to dive deep into her story on the school budget. (As a side note, the scenes at her house were filmed at Makowsky’s childhood home in Roslyn.) By all accounts, Makowsky says, Tassone was a dedicated educator.
“That’s one thing the film really wrestles with: How can you be two things at once?” Makowsky says. In fact, the screenwriter credits Tassone for building Roslyn into the kind of school that nurtured his own creativity and helped usher him into an Ivy League education. “The best education I ever got was at Roslyn,” Makowsky says. “Which is why it’s kind of funny that the movie’s called ‘Bad Education.’”
FILMS AND TV MOVIES BASED ON LI CRIMES
“Bad Education,” starring Hugh Jackman as the disgraced Roslyn school superintendent Frank Tassone, is the latest of several feature films (and TV movies) based on well-known Long Island crimes. Here are a few others:
THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1970) In the late 1940s, Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck began preying on women who placed personal ads in newspapers. One of their earliest murders took place in Valley Stream. Leonard Kastle’s cult film, starring Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler, was marketed as a bloody exploitation flick but critics praised its unflinching realism and authenticity.
AMY FISHER: MY STORY (1992) The first television movie to tell this tawdry tale featured Noelle Parker as Fisher, the Merrick teenager who began an affair with the much older Joey Buttafuoco (Ed Marinaro) and then shot his wife (Kathleen Laskey). Fisher would be played at least twice more on TV, by Drew Barrymore in “The Amy Fisher Story” and Alyssa Milano in “Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story.”
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) Leonardo Di Caprio plays real-life stock-manipulator Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s crime-drama. Belfort’s shady firm, Stratton Oakmont, was based in Luke Success, while Belfort himself lived in tony Old Brookville. The film was shot in Sands Point, Bayville and Upper Brookville.
AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated comedy featured Christian Bale and Amy Adams as a pair of con artists forced by the FBI to run a sting operation on various politicians. The movie was inspired by the FBI’s real-life Abscam operation in the late 1970s and ‘80s, which operated out of an office in Hauppauge.
LOST GIRLS (2020) Amy Ryan plays Mari Gilbert, whose search for her missing daughter, Shannan Gilbert, uncovered the remains that police would connect to the so-called Long Island Serial Killer. The Netflix feature was based on a book by Robert Kolker, the New York magazine journalist whose article on the Roslyn schools scandal became “Bad Education.”— RAFER GUZMAN