De Blasio Disputes Stringer's Findings on UPK Contracts
De Blasio Disputes Stringer's Findings on UPK Contracts
On a day when Mayor Bill de Blasio hoped to celebrate the enrollment into his universal pre-K program, he instead spent most of the press conference pushing back against an unflattering report on the program by Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Stringer's report, released yesterday evening, revealed that his office received only 141 of the estimated 500 to 570 universal pre-K contracts, preventing it from conducting a thorough review and registration of the contracts before the school year begins. Stringer was specifically critical of the Department of Education for not "rising to the challenge" of submitting the contracts in a timely fashion, with the beginning of the school year a mere eight days away.
Stringer also uncovered one instance in which a vendor had a former employee who was charged with conspiracy to commit child pornography, as well as a vendor that had six violations issued for failing to have required personnel screened with the New York State Central Register of Child Abuse and Mistreatment. An investigation found the agency properly vetted the employee in the former case, who was swiftly terminated, and new protections were put in place afterward, according to the de Blasio administration. In the latter case, the violations were corrected in April.
Nonetheless, de Blasio arrived at his press conference prepared to respond to questions about Stringer's report, flanked by a number of commissioners and city officials involved in the universal pre-K effort, many of whom did their best to dispel any notion that the city's pre-K providers were ill-equipped, from a health and safety standpoint, to handle the 50,407 children slated to enroll in the program.
"The fundamental reality is there’s a massive health and safety effort underway, that’s a different question than the nuances of contracting," de Blasio said in reference to Stringer's report. "I think if you look at the history of contracting in the city of New York, for better or for worse, a lot of contracts took a while to be finally achieved. I want to do better on that by definition because I just don’t like so much bureaucracy, but the real question is are we addressing the health and safety concerns?"
To answer that question, de Blasio called on several members of his cabinet to detail the efforts the administration has made to ensure that the community organizations and preschools that have universal pre-K contracts are in compliance with the health and safety standards for the program.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said that every pre-K staff member that comes in contact with children children has to have a criminal background check, and those who don’t have their paperwork in order, are asked to leave the pre-K facility, until they have the required documentation.
Department of Investigations Commissioner Mark Peters said that, prior to pre-K sites opening, there are health department, buildings department, and fire department inspections conducted, as well as the aforementioned criminal background checks on employees. Moreover, there is a plan in place by all agencies involved in the pre-K effort to continue a "rigorous" set of spot inspections of the sites, including unannounced spot inspections in which they will demand, on-site, to see paperwork confirming that the staff has had background checks and have been fingerprinted.
"If we find a pattern of people not having their paperwork we will recommend that the site be closed, and indeed there’s already been one instance where Dr. Bassett and I working together, have closed a site because of patterns of getting paperwork wrong," Peters said.
Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro added that the FDNY has dedicated 100 individuals, all firefighters and fire officers to do over 1600 inspections to get ready for the opening of the expanded pre-K program. check, and will spot check an additional 250 sites in the coming weeks. Nigro said he plans to keep 60 people in this task force "on the ready" to look into any and all problems reported.
Interestingly, one of the more prominent defenders of the pre-K effort at the press conference was Public Advocate Letitia James, who, like Stringer, is in a position designed to be a check on the mayor's office. James called the report "old news" and curiously referred to Stringer as "the individual who is the author of this report," instead of by name. She praised the administration for their commitment to "nothing less than pure excellence."
De Blasio and the members of his administration were roundly dismissive of the practical impact of the lag in submitting contracts to the comptroller's office. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that the issue of contracts not being submitted by the beginning of the school year had "traditionally always been an issue," dating back to her days as deputy chancellor under the previous administration. That sentiment was echoed by Gladys Carrion, the commissioner of the Administration for Child Services, who said the contracting process had always been lengthy and onerous, "for a variety of reasons." Carrion added that ACS had submitted 98 percent of the contracts it received.
De Blasio, appearing vaguely bemused about the findings of Stringer's report, said that the comptroller's findings have "zero" impact on the ramp-up for the pre-K expansion.
"We made very clear, I had a good meeting with the comptroller and his team, I said, 'If you’ve got any specific information you want to bring to our attention…everyone is ready to follow up,' " de Blasio said. "The two instances cited in the press release, one had long since been resolved, and the others had been resolved in the same time as the report was made. The fact is, we don’t have an example that’s been provided to us by the comptroller’s office of a specific danger that we have to address."
When asked whether the comptroller's motives might have been more political than practical, de Blasio demurred.
"This is not about personalities and it’s not about motives or anything else, this is just about facts."
For his part, at a later press conference, Stringer reportedly was unfazed by the appearance of the administration ganging up on him about his findings on the universal pre-K program, and reiterated his commitment to conducting the business of his office independent of influence from the mayor's office.
“Sometimes it’s going to be lonely. Sometimes the establishment is going to criticize me. I understand that. I knew that when I ran for this office. And I said the following: I will work with the administration, and believe me I have, but I will also be fiercely independent. I am not going to back down or shrink from my charter-mandated responsibilities,” Stringer said.