Along with his name on Beverly Hills campuses, donor buys controversy

Big donations at Beverly Hills schools can buy your name on campus — and sometimes ill will

At Beverly Hills High School, a gift of $2,500 will get your name on a seat in the theater. For $50,000, the teachers lounge can be named after you.

And, for $10 million, a campus street can bear your name.

The Beverly Hills Unified School District has a menu of buildings, courtyards, auditoriums, even trees, for sale. It is a strategy still largely uncommon in public school systems, following more along the naming-rights policies at private schools, colleges and hospitals.

Some local education foundations, such as those that support schools in La Cañada Flintridge, Palos Verdes and Manhattan Beach, will entertain the idea, but most don't actively pursue these types of donations.

Critics say these groups, though well intentioned, contribute to an already wide inequity in educational opportunity. Typically located in wealthy communities, the foundations are able to supplement the education of their already advantaged children, said Cal State Fullerton political science professor Sarah A. Hill, who studies public education finance.

"The quality of a child's education should not be dependent on where they happen to live," she said. "But that is very much true in California."

Beverly Hills foundation officials said that some people have the misconception that the city's schools have abundant funds. In reality, they say, the foundation's efforts help cover budget shortfalls.

The fundraising effort has triggered a spat between two Beverly Hills real estate agents over the naming of a courtyard at El Rodeo Elementary. The move prompted a host of allegations — of a sweetheart deal, advertising disguised as philanthropy and professional jealousy.

It began when Marty Halfon noticed Michael J. Libow's name on the wall of the courtyard of the school Halfon's daughter attends. Halfon himself attended the school and in recent years brought together a group of community members to donate money and spruce up the grounds.

After a few calls, he learned that Libow, who also is a real estate agent, donated $35,000 to have the courtyard bear his name. That did not sit well with Halfon, who said he and others had never heard of the program.

"The school board has allowed Michael Libow to have a private billboard on public property," he said.

Halfon saw the donation as a promotional ploy. The courtyard draws foot traffic from parents — all prospective clients, he said.

And there's more: Halfon thought the price was far too low, considering that the school's playground has a sticker price of $150,000, according to the Beverly Hills Education Foundation, a fundraising arm for the district. Halfon suggested that a cozy relationship between Libow and the school board led to a reduced price.

"Why did Michael Libow get an 'A' location for $35,000?" Halfon said.

Libow was largely unfazed by the criticism — which spilled into the local Beverly Hills Weekly newspaper. He denies that he donates simply to gain exposure by putting his name on school buildings.

He has done so three times: the Michael Libow Math Lab at Beverly Hills High cost him $30,000; Michael Libow Atrium at Beverly Vista Elementary was $21,750 and Michael Libow Kindergarten Playspace at Hawthorne Elementary was $23,000.

Most recently, he was part of a group that gave money for a new sound system at the high school gym; his name will appear on a plaque there.

"I can never imagine being condemned by anyone for being charitable," Libow said. "The city gives so much to me that I like to give back to the city. That's my motivation. I'm a product of the city and its schools."

The nonprofit foundation handles the donations. The group aims to woo private and corporate donors to support the 4,270-student system, but so far only individuals have participated in the naming effort.

The group offers donors a variety of options, an elementary school cafeteria ($50,000), a planetarium ($500,000) and the front lawn of the high school, known as "The Meadow" ($2.5 million). A tree, depending on its size and location, can go for between $1,000 and $5,000. The sapling can be adorned with a small sign noting its botanical name, the day it was planted and the donor's name, if desired.

Ronit Stone, the foundation president, said she was surprised to see someone criticized for donating more than $100,000 to schoolchildren. A name gracing the side of a building can spur others to donate, Stone said.

"Some people prefer to donate anonymously, some people prefer to donate with a naming," she said. "You can't walk a college campus, a hospital without seeing names on buildings."

The high school's basketball court was named after entertainment mogul Sam Nazarian after a $200,000 donation. A weight room is named for the family of Carter Paysinger, the high school's principal, after a $30,000 donation by the Beverly Hills Basketball league.

"We're lucky to live in a city that supports the schools," Stone said. "We do have generous parents and community members, but it's still a process to cultivate donors."

Brian Goldberg, president of the board of education, said Beverly Hills is "a world-class city, but it's still a small town — particularly when it comes to its politics."

The naming program is a practical approach to tackling fundraising needs, and those who donate should be celebrated, not derided, Goldberg said.

Some board members said at a recent meeting that they would look more closely at the contribution amounts in relation to the foundation's pricing.

Halfon said many of his former classmates at El Rodeo are from prominent families and could easily gather hundreds of thousands of dollars to name a building, for example, after one of their elementary school teachers. He suggested a cocktail party for prospective donors to tour the campus to select what they'd like to name.

He also offered to donate $35,000 for Libow's name to be taken down.

"It's a disservice to the city, disservice to the students, disservice to the community," he said. "They could be raising more money if they did it properly."

Stone said she liked the idea of a cocktail party to raise funds: "Fantastic — let's do it."

For Libow, the hullabaloo that his donations have caused confounds him.

"I have always felt that part of my legacy to the city of Beverly Hills would be to strongly support its school system," Libow said. He added: "It's just my name."

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Twitter: @sjceasar

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