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Rich People Problems

Illustration: Zohar Lazar

THR's advice columnist Victoria Klein Wainscott weighs in on Hollywood's "other" season: private-school application time.

Q: A colleague asked me to help get his (awful) child into the school where I sit on the board. How do I say no?

A: Everyone in this town knows that where your child goes to private school is more important for social standing than what car you drive or handbag you carry (Hermes, of course!) or at which golf club your husband plays. Having your kid attend Harvard-Westlake or Brentwood is the educational equivalent of a three-picture deal with backend options -- and Joss Whedon attached to direct. Since there just aren't enough spots for all the bright, privileged kids to get into their top choice, private school is the one place in this town where neither fame, power, beauty nor money has absolute influence. (Although all four help. If George Clooney had kids, they would be a shoo-in for every school.) Even Les Moonves was overheard on a school tour expressing anxiety as to whether his son would be accepted.

The school application process is an insiders' game. But anyone can play it -- you just need to know the mostly unwritten rules, which are less obvious than Botox on a 20-year-old. If a board-member parent snubs another parent's kid, she could make herself more of a pariah than, well, if she put on 20 pounds.

Christina Simon -- former vp of global PR firm Fleishman-Hillard and one of the authors (with Anne Simon and Porcha Dodson) of the pre-eminent L.A. private-school application guidebook Beyond the Brochure and matching blog -- advises, "I don't think anyone ever really says no in these circumstances. They might write a generic recommendation letter that says a lot of nothing -- or they might say they're going to stop by the admissions office to speak to the director, and who knows what that conversation consists of or if it even happens. The only excuse that doesn't sound horribly rude is that you've already written four letters just like this, and a fifth letter might look a little tacky."

Q: It's that time: The school is asking for donations. My job is high-profile. Do they have a ballpark of what I make? What is expected?

A: Asking parents to donate big bucks to a tony school that already charges $30,000 in annual tuition is like Neiman Marcus asking for donations after you've bought out the second floor -- long before markdowns. Simon advises that one of the best ways to decipher the art of school donations is to look at last year's annual report, which they mail to every family with a child attending. It's beautifully done, lists who gave what and all the corporate sponsors, and tells you the gap between your tuition and the general overhead. At Harvard-Westlake (where the Katzenberg kids went), it's $2,000 to $3,000 a student. If you have two kids in school, you double it. That's how much you should donate. Based on what they perceive as your job, they can ask more of you, but generally, "the schools don't really know each person's net worth," notes Simon.

It can be surprising who gives what -- and who doesn't. We've heard stories about top-tier dads asking principals, "Why does it cost so damn much? Are you throwing in a car and driver?" Beware: Grousing like this (which works so well at restaurants and Oscar parties) could cost a kid their spot. On the other hand, what your money is covering is worthy: technology labs, great teachers' salaries, well-equipped gyms. These schools are better appointed than five-star hotels!

Q: What's the most discreet way to give an obscene amount of money to my kids' school? Can I buy my way in?

A: In my opinion, obscene amounts of money -- an expression used by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman to say what he'd be spending on Julia Roberts in a Beverly Hills boutique -- never have much to do with discretion. Nor should they. This is Hollywood. But when it concerns kids and schools, discretion is a game most people in this town are not practiced in.

An offer of big money before a kid gets in is obscene -- and considered bribery. "It could hurt you more than help you," says A-list educational consultant Harriett Bay (the mother of Michael Bay). "Schools can't turn a blind eye to wealth, but they won't take a student just for that reason. They have to be acceptable." John Esty, head of the National Association of Independent Schools in the 1980s and former headmaster of Connecticut's Taft School, says: "It's best to wait for large gifts to the school after graduation, so there's no hint of influence. The only exception might be where there is an annual parents fund -- in which case, it's preferable to make the gifts modest." Counters Simon, "If your family donates a building, that's another matter." A stadium, gym or new library never hurt. It's like gifting: Checks look lazy -- you want to give gifts that keep on giving, and it's not just the thought that counts. But when it comes to schools, thought does count for a lot.

To contact THR's Victoria Klein Wainscott with a concern (anonymity assured), send e-mail to richpeople problems@thr.com

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