Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Bad Education

We break down HBO’s new movie about the Roslyn school scandal, starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney.

Frank Tassone and Hugh Jackman.
Frank Tassone and Hugh Jackman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by David L. Pokress/Newsday via Getty Images and HBO.

Bad Education, the new HBO drama from director Cory Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky, tells the true story of a scandal that erupted in 2002 at a premier high school on Long Island, where several school administrators and associates were found guilty of various roles in carrying out and covering up an elaborate $11.2 million fraud. The film stars Hugh Jackman as Roslyn school district’s once widely revered superintendent, Frank Tassone, under whose stewardship the high school rose to being considered one of the best in the country. Right by his side is assistant superintendent Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney), a wisecracking, hardworking woman with a thick Long Island accent. Together, the unlikely pair colluded to pull off a crime of extraordinary proportions, one that the New York state comptroller described as “the largest, most remarkable, most extraordinary theft” from a school system “in American history.”

Makowsky came to the story firsthand, having attended Roslyn High School himself in the years after the scandal was revealed. “It really cast a shadow on the whole town,” he told me when I asked him how he adapted the story for the movie, which premieres in the United States on HBO on Saturday. “Frank Tassone was like the boogeyman.” Drawing upon his knowledge of the events, his familiarity with the Roslyn community, and reporting from the time, Makowsky aimed to write a screenplay that would adhere as closely as possible to the actual events of the case. However, for the sake of clarity and concision, certain details were changed or edited out. We consulted school records, Makowsky, Robert Kolker’s 2004 New York magazine article about the scandal (on which the movie was also based), and other reliable reporting from the time to parse out exactly which details of this hard-to-believe tale are true.

Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman)

Within the first few minutes of Bad Education, we get a sense of who Frank Tassone is. Dressed in a neatly pressed suit, drinking a smoothie, and exuding a sense of calm authority, he is depicted as the kind of guy who inspires trust and respect, and around whom mythologies of success are built. This is more or less true of the real Tassone. Clean-cut, Ivy League–educated, and a supremely successful superintendent, Tassone was beloved by the Roslyn community. “Frank was really the master,” Charlie Piemonte, Roslyn’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told New York magazine’s Kolker. “I mean, this guy was loved. He walked on water.”

Among the things Tassone says early on in the film is that he is a widower, though details about his late wife and her death are limited. He wears a wedding ring and has a picture of a woman in a wedding dress on his desk. At one point in the film, a mother at the school makes an advance on him, and he demurs, gesturing to his ring and saying, “Her memory is very fresh.” All of this tracks with the way the real Tassone presented himself professionally. “Frank said his wife, Joanne, died at a very early age,” the teachers union president told Kolker. “She had some kind of an illness. He had a wedding picture in his office.” However, as the fraud began to surface, so did details about Tassone’s personal life. In particular, the movie reveals that he has not one but two male partners—one in Manhattan and another in Las Vegas (more on this later).

In the film, Tassone is portrayed as deeply appearance-conscious. A perpetual dieter with slicked-back hair, he is always dressed in a suit and is often seen assessing his appearance in the mirror, fixing his hair, or trimming his nose hairs. At one point, he gets a face-lift. While the real Tassone was not nearly as ruggedly good looking as Jackman, his vanity is well-documented. Apparently, a good portion of the funds he embezzled went into beautifying himself. He racked up extraordinary dry-cleaning bills and, according to New York magazine, “used $56,645 in school money to pay for treatments by a Manhattan weight-loss doctor named Steven Lamm, though he told Newsday he paid for the treatments out of his own pocket.” In hindsight, many members of the Roslyn community reflected that Tassone’s lifestyle and appearance changed markedly over the years as he siphoned money from the school. The part about the face-lift, too, is backed up by a line in the article. “Suddenly it’s not Frank in a Ford Taurus with his pants way up to here—it’s Frank with his hair slicked back and a face-lift,” according to one parent.

Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney)

Allison Janney holds her hand on top of a blender.
Allison Janney as Pamela Gluckin.
HBO

As depicted in the film, Gluckin was by all accounts a workhorse, often staying in the office until the wee hours of the morning. Gluckin, who had been at Roslyn for two years before Tassone arrived, was widely respected by her colleagues and became a close confidant of Tassone’s after he joined the school. In fact, it was Tassone who promoted her from treasurer to assistant superintendent for business. As in the movie, Gluckin owned at least three homes (which, with a $160,000 salary, probably should have raised some eyebrows earlier), including one in Florida and another on Dune Road in Westhampton. And, yes, she actually did drive a Jaguar with the vanity plate “DUNENUTN.”

All of that changes, however, once the first wave of the fraud is revealed. In the film, Gluckin appears as an early fall guy for the scandal. She draws attention to herself when her son (played by American Vandal’s Jimmy Tatro), whom she hires to renovate her beach house, is caught racking up expensive purchases at Ace Hardware on the school’s credit card. This is almost 100 percent true to life, except that the telltale purchases were from Home Depot, not Ace. As in the movie, it was these charges that sparked an initial investigation into Gluckin’s books, revealing a $250,000 theft.

At the time, Gluckin was believed to have worked alone. Tassone, attempting to distance himself from her and control the story, fires Gluckin, calling her a “sociopath” in front of the board. Meanwhile, he secretly advocates on her behalf, convincing the school board not to go public with the information or press criminal charges.

In Kolker’s article, it’s one of the board members who remembers telling Tassone that Gluckin “must be a sociopathic personality,” but the rest plays out much the same. Tassone’s argument—in the film as in real life—was that it would have a negative impact on the image of the school and the reputation of the town, and therefore might affect home values and college admissions decisions (apparently the only thing that anyone at Roslyn High School cared about). This story was maintained for a few months, during which time Tassone feigned ignorance of Gluckin’s deceit, shrugging responsibility onto the school board. But eventually the dam broke, and a series of reporters and investigators revealed the true scope of the scam.

Rachel Bhargava and the School Newspaper

Geraldine Viswanathan.
Geraldine Viswanathan as Rachel Bhargava.
HBO

In the film, the first hints of wrongdoing come to light when a student, Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), begins asking questions about the proposed budget for a “skywalk.” A reporter for the school newspaper, the Hilltop Beacon, Rachel is not expecting much when she pops into Tassone’s office for a quick quote. “It’s just a puff piece,” she says a bit dejectedly. Tassone, ever the educator, sees a teachable moment. “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece,” he says. Upon asking further questions, Rachel gets the keys to the school archive, where she begins to notice other perplexing charges in the school budgets.

While the character of Rachel was invented for the movie—Makowsky says that Rachel is “a part composite, part invention meant to be an audience surrogate who is finding out information with us”—it’s true that the Hilltop Beacon was the first to get wind of the story. Articles in the student paper were eventually followed by stories from Newsday, the first professional outlet to report on the story. Makowsky notes that, in preparing for the role, Viswanathan spoke to several of the student reporters involved in getting the scoop. In 2004, the New York Times published an account by one of these students, Rebekah Rombom, describing how the student paper broke the story. She writes that an adviser had some simple advice: “We were a newspaper, he told us, and it was our responsibility to report the news. We decided to do just that.”

The Secret Partner

One of the movie’s biggest twists involves a company named WordPower. As Rachel begins going through specific line items in the school’s budget, she notices a number of large payments—more than $800,000 in total—to a contractor operating under that name. Unable to figure out what WordPower does exactly, she investigates further and sees that the company’s listed address is an apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Enterprising sleuth that she is, Rachel decides to go visit the apartment, and while she’s there, she runs into Tassone, putting his keys in the lock.

Now, while the details of the discovery were altered to heighten the suspense (remember: there was no Rachel Bhargava), the facts Rachel discovers are essentially correct. Roslyn did, in reality, have contracts with something called WordPower. WordPower was listed to a Manhattan apartment owned by a man named Steve Signorelli, who was listed as the CEO of WordPower. The company was completely phony and Signorelli was, it seems, not a CEO but Tassone’s longtime partner, with whom Tassone shared the apartment. Upon further investigation, it was uncovered that the funds paid to WordPower had eventually been transferred into a separate account—one attributed to a Frank A. Tassone.

According to reporting in the Washington Post, Signorelli later sought marriage privileges to avoid having to testify against Tassone, just as he’s shown doing in the movie. Though the two were not legally married, Signorelli argued that they qualified for rights under common law. As Signorelli put it in an affidavit, “Mr. Tassone and I have been loving partners for 33 years.” He also claimed in the same affidavit that he and Tassone had conducted “a solemn religious ceremony” on a cruise in the Caribbean “to memorialize [their] relationship and love for one another.”

The Secret Boyfriend

Rafael Casal in Bad Education sitting at a diner table.
Rafael Casal as Kyle Contreras.
HBO

One of the most salacious subplots in the movie involves Frank Tassone’s relationship with a man named Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal), a former student turned dancer whom he reconnects with while on a school-funded trip to Las Vegas. Tassone hooks up with the much younger man, and the two begin a relationship, with Tassone frequently traveling back and forth between New York and Las Vegas to visit him.

Though the character of Contreras was invented for the movie, and certain facts were fabricated, he is largely based on a real person named Jason Daugherty, who was then a 32-year-old exotic dancer with whom the real Tassone purchased a house (with Roslyn funds) and appeared to have maintained a yearslong relationship.

The Dickensian Aspect

One of the film’s most ironic motifs revolves around Tassone’s interest in Charles Dickens. In multiple scenes, he is pictured reading paperback copies of Great Expectations and David Copperfield. This is, in part, a reference to the real Tassone’s literary background: As the movie notes, before becoming superintendent, Tassone was an English teacher, and while at Columbia University’s Teachers College, he wrote his dissertation on Dickens. While it’s only a minor detail in the film, it’s also an appropriate one, given that, as one parent in Kolker’s article notes, Tassone—a deceitful man who profits off children while claiming to help them—seems like he could have hopped out of the pages of a Dickens novel.