Bad Education is based on the real-life scandal that went down at writer Mike Makowsky’s high school, where the single largest public school embezzlement scheme in American history was uncovered – by a student journalist, no less. What’s more, as the movie tells it, she was encouraged in her investigation by the school supervisor, a dedicated and highly respected educator, and the very man her article would ultimately land behind bars.
What was your vision for the film?
Mike Makowsky: My goal was to revisit a pivotal incident in my hometown’s past, and to examine what happened with a renewed, more modern perspective. It was an opportunity to recreate a time and place very intimate to me, and to tackle complicated subjects that helped shape that world for me as a kid.
How do you feel about the players involved?
I was in seventh grade when the scandal came to light, and we saw a huge change happen in my town almost overnight. Frank Tassone was a man who’d done so much for Roslyn, had been held in near unanimous high regard, and all of a sudden, he became the villain of all our childhoods. I went into this process totally primed to despise him even further.
So it was fascinating to go back home and speak with people who knew and worked with him, and to read over ten years’ worth of weekly op-eds he wrote in our local paper. I quickly gleaned a different picture of Dr. Tassone, one that really surprised me. It wasn’t rooted in greed or villainy at all, but rather a clear passion for education and almost bottomless commitment to his students — to us. It was hard to reconcile this man with the criminal who participated in a $11.2 million scheme, who stole from the pockets of those same students.
It’s beyond question that Tassone caused a tremendous amount of hurt in my hometown, and to my school — some of which still has ramifications to this day. But the script is an attempt to at least try and understand his actions, and those of his cohorts, and to find some window for empathy.
What research did you do in writing the script?
I got to interview a number of people over the course of my research process, many of whom were former teachers of mine in the Roslyn school district. A handful were among my first readers on the script. All had distinct, specific recollections of the scandal that were very illuminating.
I also spoke with Roslyn parents who served on the PTA or spearheaded initiatives with Dr. Tassone, and students who dealt with him directly — including the former editor-in-chief of our school paper, the Hilltop Beacon, who first reported on the scandal in any form back in 2004. It was a big achievement for student journalism, and one that thrilled me on a personal level, having held the same job title at the paper five years later as a senior at Roslyn High.
Did you approach anyone directly involved?
We made the decision not to invite any of the perpetrators to participate in the film’s telling. As a former Roslyn student, I remember firsthand just how painful the scandal was to my community that fell victim to it. Those wounds are still very raw for many people I care about, and I felt it was important to remain loyal first and foremost to my town’s perspective.
On the surface, this could seem like a small, secular story about school board and administrative drama on Long Island. But I would hope people can receive its themes — in specific those about human nature and institutional corruption — on a broader scale. To me, at least, this kind of story feels like a microcosm for bigger elements at play in our world.