New York City Comptroller says some pre-K sites may be unsafe

Dave Evans in lower Manhattan with the latest on the new pre-k program
Thursday, August 28, 2014
City Comptroller Scott Stringer said Wednesday that New York City is far behind schedule in submitting contracts with pre-kindergarten providers, which he says raises possible safety problems with some of the sites slated to be used for Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature program.

Stringer said that only 141 of more than 500 contracts have been submitted to his office even though school starts in just eight days for 50,000 students in the city's significantly expanded pre-K program. He said failure to provide those contracts to his office - which is required to review all city contracts - is preventing his team from doing safety checks.

"It is risky to be launching a program like this without the proper review," said Stringer in an interview. "Not getting the contracts means we can't do our due diligence."

"We can't sacrifice safety for expediency," he said.

Officials in the comptroller's office said they have found serious safety issues with a few of the vendors whose contracts they have inspected, including one which employed a staffer who had been charged with conspiracy to commit child pornography.

The sites that do not have approved contracts will still open Sept. 4 even if the paperwork has yet to be submitted by then to the comptroller.

The pre-K expansion is the centerpiece of de Blasio's first year in office. The speedy rollout - New York is trying to do in months what smaller cities like Boston did in years - has cost more than $500 million and comes with massive political stakes for the mayor.

Administration officials pushed back against the comptroller, saying it was common for some contracts to be registered after the start of the school year and insisting that the pre-K sites and employees are being thoroughly vetted by several city agencies.

"Parents can rest assured: these high-quality programs will be ready, they will be safe, and they will meet the very highest standards," de Blasio said in a statement. "We will, of course, make sure the comptroller has the documents he needs to register contracts in a timely way."

About 600 Department of Education sites will be used for pre-K sites, but since public schools don't have the space to accommodate all the new students, more than 1,100 community-based organizations like day cares and religious schools will also host the programs. De Blasio has promised that every classroom will be inspected by the first day of school, which has reassured some advocates.

"This is a really ambitious undertaking, and we don't expect that everything will go smoothly," said Kim Sweet, executive director of the Advocates for Children of New York. "Of course, the safety of the children is critical."

For the first time in a generation, the top officials in New York City government - including Stringer and de Blasio - are all Democrats. And while the leaders have largely walked in lockstep in a liberal agenda (and that includes Stringer's support for the pre-K expansion), this is not the first time the comptroller has looked to assert his independence from the mayor.

Stringer also criticized de Blasio for an accounting issue on the city budget deal that was reached in June. And he was alone among top Democrats to say it was inappropriate for the mayor to have called the NYPD in February to inquire about the arrest of a political ally.
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