September 16, 2011

The Hershey Trust Responds: A 'Fundamentally Wrong' Premise

To the editor:

It is astounding that Pablo Eisenberg wrote a lengthy opinion piece on regulation of Milton Hershey School and Hershey Trust Company without even bothering to call the subjects of his column.

It is disappointing–and a disservice to its readers–that The Chronicle so prominently published such a fundamentally inaccurate and profoundly unvetted piece. (Read The Chronicle's response.)

Mr. Eisenberg’s column begins with this sentence: “For two decades neither the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office nor the Internal Revenue Service has been willing to take serious action to remedy the abuses that have plagued one of the wealthiest nonprofits in America, the Milton Hershey School for poor children.”

A single phone call would have shown that this sentence–and thus the entire premise of the column–is fundamentally wrong.

The column inexplicably ignores the central fact that in 2002 and 2003 the Pennsylvania Attorney General quite publicly intervened by compelling the appointment of a new board of directors. How is that “unwilling to take serious action?”

That reconstituted board since has expanded the school’s enrollment by 50 percent, from about 1,200 students to about 1,850. As a result, the philanthropy now serves more students than ever before in its history–and the enrollment growth is continuing. Why is that unworthy of mention?

Mr. Eisenberg’s piece contains numerous other errors and material omissions. Since 2003, the school has undergone a dramatic transformation, resulting in documented, significant improvements in our more than 1,800 students’ academic performance, their social and behavioral development, and their post-graduate success. The school provides a home and school to children from pre-K through 12th grade who come from families in extreme poverty. An intellectually honest critique would have included those achievements along with a discussion of areas where improvements still can be made.

Essential context also was omitted. Take, for example, the issue of student retention. For the past 50 years, about 10 to 12 percent of students have left each year, the vast majority because of homesickness. Milton Hershey School is a residential school, and its attrition rate is consistent with residential schools nationally, according to published reports from the Association of Boarding Schools and the National Association of Independent Schools. This is an area of ongoing focus for us. But Mr. Eisenberg instead portrays it as a unique and exceptional failing.

Additionally, Mr. Eisenberg attacks the board’s complex structure but fails to point out that structure was established by our founder, Milton S. Hershey. Members of the Board of Directors of Hershey Trust Company, which serves as trustee of the Milton Hershey School Trust, have a complex mandate that involves oversight of multibillion-dollar investment interests in the Hershey Company and an entertainment company–as well as the largest school of its kind for children in need.

As a result, board members must have a range of knowledge and experience.

Contrary to Mr. Eisenberg’s assertion, the board has members with meaningful and relevant education experience, including the former chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and a former educator and counsel to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The board also includes four alumni of the School–an inconvenient fact for Mr. Eisenberg’s goal of portraying politics.

What’s more, the school is filled with career educators and child-care experts. Those individuals include our current president, who previously served as the superintendent of a highly successful 7,600-student school district.

And Mr. Eisenberg misquotes Mr. Hershey’s deed and never sees fit to mention that the real-estate purchases he describes were made in conjunction with a strategic plan to enable the school to expand the number of children it serves by expanding its campus footprint.

In fact, such land purchases are specifically allowed in the deed of trust, which clearly gives the board the ability to “purchase any additional land adjoining the school property, or conveniently near to it … if they consider such land necessary or convenient for the purposes of the school.”

If Mr. Eisenberg or anyone else at The Chronicle of Philanthropy had taken the time to contact the Hershey Trust Company or Milton Hershey School, they would have learned these facts.  Then, instead of running a column which is factually inaccurate, it could have published a balanced and accurate piece on an important philanthropic subject.

Connie McNamara
Vice President for Communications
Milton Hershey School
Hershey, Pa.


Editor’s note: The Chronicle agrees that Mr. Eisenberg should have called Hershey officials. However, before he formed the opinions expressed in the article, he conducted numerous interviews with people who have direct knowledge about the issues Ms. McNamara notes, as well as with many people who closely follow the Hershey Trust.