Roslyn HS reporter who broke ‘Bad Education’ story speaks out 16 years later

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Geraldine Viswanathan as Rachel in "Bad Education." The character was partially based on Roslyn High School alumna Rebekah Rombom, who initially broke the story about Assistant Superintendent Pamela Gluckin's embezzlement from the district in her school newspaper. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

On a March morning in 2004, Roslyn High School senior Rebekah Rombom was awaiting the publication of a special issue of the Hilltop Beacon, the school’s paper where she served as co-editor.

“I knew we were breaking news, and I was excited about that,” Rombom recalled in a telephone interview.  “I’m not sure I had the experience or foresight to really understand what might happen next. I certainly didn’t imagine I’d be watching a movie about it.”

In the issue was a story Rombom had written about Pamela Gluckin, an assistant superintendent for business, who had been quietly fired by the school board after it was discovered she had embezzled $250,000 from the Roslyn district, which had seen its seniors regularly accepted into top colleges and the schools themselves ranked among the country’s best.

The issue made the Hilltop Beacon the first media outlet – and Rombom the first journalist – to report on the district’s embezzlement scandal, which in due time would take down not only Gluckin, but Roslyn’s beloved superintendent of schools for over a decade, Frank Tassone.

Roslyn alumnus Mike Makowsky would later adapt the ordeal into “Bad Education,” a major motion picture featuring Hugh Jackman as Tassone and Allison Janney as Gluckin, which is  set to air on HBO Saturday. Australian actress Geraldine Viswanathan co-stars as student journalist Rachel, a fictional character Makowsky partially based on Rombom.

Rombom, who grew up in East Hills and went to Roslyn schools all her life, worked on the paper throughout high school, having “always loved writing.”

“While I was a student journalist, I took the endeavor pretty seriously and tried hard to do a good job,” Rombom said.

The interest became even more serious when in her senior year she “received some information about an alleged embezzlement taking place.”

“Along with that information, I learned I should probably attend the school board meeting that was going to happen,” Rombom said. “And it was at that school board meeting that the story started to take shape.”

Rombom remembers then-School Board President William Costigan reading a statement about Gluckin and the embezzlement. In a 2004 story published by The New York Times in which she recounted her experiences, she wrote that while the “tone of most every question at that first meeting was accusatory, the audience behaved in a civilized manner.”

With encouragement from her co-editor and faculty adviser, Rombom went forward with the story.

“I did some interviews in the process,” Rombom said. “[The movie character] Rachel does a little more investigative reporting than I did. I had tried to do a Freedom of Information Act request to dig a little bit deeper on some of the documents that I thought revealed more detail about what was going on, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it in time, so I reported the facts that I had from interviews that I was able to do before we published.”

In The Times piece, Rombom added that while she had been allowed to have a phone interview with Tassone, she was told not to use Gluckin’s name and had to show the story to then-Principal Jayson Stoller and the district’s director of community relations before it would be published. Both read it promptly and neither requested that anything be changed, according to Rombom’s Times story.

The months after Rombom’s Hilltop Beacon story would see major news outlets pick up on what was happening in Roslyn, as it was discovered that thousands of dollars were left unaccounted for during Tassone’s 12-year run as superintendent.

All in all, Tassone, Gluckin and their associates are thought to have embezzled more than $11.2 million of the district’s money, spending it on home renovations, lavish trips and personal needs.

Shortly after the school board accepted Tassone’s resignation in June 2004, Rombom graduated and went to Dartmouth College, but the fallout continued.

“This kind of reporting and impact is just about the most exciting thing that can happen to you as a high school journalist,” Rombom said. “But I felt quite conflicted at the time about the impact that it had had on the community, particularly as the situation snowballed from a $250,000 embezzlement that I had initially reported and the quiet resignation of one administrator to this $11.2 million ordeal involving Frank Tassone.”

Rombom said the Roslyn schools served her “incredibly well.”

“I had amazing relationships with my teachers, the schools provided outlets for me to thrive, including the newspaper, and the information needed to see daylight, but the fallout was difficult for the community, and I certainly felt very conflicted about that,” Rombom said. “I had great experiences at those schools.

In 2006 Tassone and Gluckin would be sentenced to prison on larceny charges, with both later released in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Rombom moved away from the Roslyn area soon after graduating from Dartmouth in 2008, where while studying English she worked for the school newspaper The Dartmouth and served as editor in her senior year. She now lives in Brooklyn and, in an interesting twist, has worked in education for the last seven years.

“I haven’t worked as a journalist in about a decade, but I’ve always taken what I do seriously,” Rombom said. “My approach at school and in my career has been to put in a lot of effort and try very hard to do well. I’ve now worked in several different industries and roles, and for me that approach, alongside being very lucky and grateful for what’s come my way, is what’s worked.”

In time, screenwriter Makowsky interviewed Rombom about her experiences for the “Bad Education” script. She would also speak with Viswanathan, the actress portraying the character partially based on her.

Rombom also said she hasn’t yet seen the film, but will watch its premiere on Saturday.

“I do think that one of the central themes that comes out in the story is that several things can be true, one person or one situation at once,” Rombom said. “And I definitely felt conflicted about being the first to publish this information. I know that Dr. Tassone led a school system that did an incredibly good job for a lot of students, including me, and also oversaw the embezzlement of a ton of money that was meant to fund our education. It’s a hard set of realities to reconcile.”

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