NEW YORK (Reuters) - Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift to the beleaguered public schools of Newark, New Jersey, to help improve public education in a city he has no connection to.
The billionaire announced the grant on Friday on the Oprah Winfrey television show. He denied suggestions the timing was aimed at deflecting attention from a movie that depicts the 26-year-old in an unflattering light.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities in my life, and a lot of that comes from ... having gone to really good schools. And I just want to do what I can to make sure that everyone has those same opportunities,” Zuckerberg told Winfrey about his gift to a city once the backdrop for Philip Roth novels but more recently struggling with crime, corruption and decay.
On a conference call for reporters with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Zuckerberg said he chose Newark — a city to which he has no tangible connection — after meeting Booker at a conference this summer.
He said he was simply impressed by the mayor’s plans.
The gift brings together two of the Garden State’s rising political stars from opposite sides of the political divide.
Youthful Democrat Booker is a former Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate whose first run for mayor was shown in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Street Fight.”
In less than a year as governor, Republican Christie has earned a reputation as a tough-talking politician who will do whatever it takes to get New Jersey’s fiscal house in order, pushing through his agenda despite a Democrat-controlled legislature.
During Friday’s conference call Christie called Newark “a city in desperate need of transformation.”
Booker told Winfrey, “I think that Newark is going to change the paradigm for urban education.”
As part of the deal, Christie will cede some control of the schools to Booker, including choosing a superintendent. Christie retains the right to take back control.
“He’s investing in the vision that Cory has. I’m investing in Cory’s vision as well. And together Mark and I are going to help Cory make sure we execute and implement that vision to improve the lives of the families in the city of Newark,” Christie told reporters.
Zuckerberg’s donation funds his Startup: Education foundation, which will disburse the cash. He said he hoped to be involved in many more charity efforts in the coming years.
Newark’s 40,000-plus student school system is among the worst in New Jersey — only 40 percent of students are able to read and write by the end of third grade. The state took control of the schools in the mid 1990s but the hoped-for improvement has failed to materialize.
Zuckerberg said the gift will come from the sale of shares of privately held Facebook, the world’s No 1 Internet social network, and distributed to Newark over five years.
Facebook, one of the Web’s fastest growing companies, was valued at $23 billion in June when private equity firm Elevation Partners invested $120 million in the company, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Booker said the deal came with clear benchmarks and told Zuckerberg to halt his donation if Newark falls short.
The grant is the largest yet for Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004. The social networking service now boasts more than 500 million members.
Zuckerberg, who reportedly still lives in a modest rental home in Palo Alto, California, and dresses in blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, is the 36th richest American with a net worth of $6.9 billion, according to Forbes.
“The Social Network,” a movie about Facebook’s creation, based on a book by Ben Mezrich, opens nationwide on October 1.
The movie depicts Zuckerberg as a socially awkward genius who is at times arrogant and ruthless.
Additional reporting by Alexei Oreskovic in San Francisco; Editing by Mark Egan and Jerry Norton