Pre-K Sites Closed by City Are Under Investigation for 'Integrity Issues'

By Jeff Mays on September 4, 2014 9:19am 

 Mayor Bill de Blasio visits a pre-K class at P.S. 130 in Manhattan. Many of the nine new universal pre-kindergarten sites shuttered by  Mayor Bill de Blasio  are under investigation for "integrity issues," according to the Department of Investigation.
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits a pre-K class at P.S. 130 in Manhattan. Many of the nine new universal pre-kindergarten sites shuttered by Mayor Bill de Blasio are under investigation for "integrity issues," according to the Department of Investigation.
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MANHATTAN — Many of the nine new universal pre-kindergarten sites shuttered by Mayor Bill de Blasio this week are under investigation for "integrity issues," according to the Department of Investigation.

Rainbow Afterschool Program in The Bronx along with four pre-K sites run by Birch Family Services in four different boroughs were included on the city's list of nine programs that were not likely to open this school year.

"Birch and Rainbow are under investigation by DOI for integrity issues and we decline further comment," said a spokeswoman for the DOI.

A source from the de Blasio administration also would not detail the specific concerns about the shuttered sites.

"We found things that are serious enough that we didn't want to send kids there," said the source, who was not authorized to speak on the issue.

After a massive effort involving multiple city agencies that was organized in just a few months, the city on Thursday is launching the first phase of de Blasio's signature plan to offer universal pre-K.

More than 50,000 preschoolers are set to arrive at schools and 500 new community-based sites around the city. This year's total, which is expected to reach 53,000 kids by October, surpasses the number of kids enrolled in full-day pre-K last year by 30,000.

At a press conference Wednesday, de Blasio said the number of kids affected by the closures and delays was small compared to the number of kids being served. City officials say they have placed 125 of 265 kids affected by the closed sites and have guaranteed affected parents a slot for their children.

Classes at 36 sites are being delayed to resolve outstanding concerns but most of those are expected to open by Monday, the mayor said.

"Every parent would say the paramount concern is getting it right, making sure these sites are ready to go, that they are up to code, that they're safe, that they're healthy, that everything is in place for our children," de Blasio said.

But some of the shuttered sites said they were unsure about why they were not being allowed to open.

"It was a surprise to us," said Stacy Russo-Quinonez, executive assistant for education at Birch Family Services, which has sites in East Flatbush, Washington Heights, Springfield Gardens and Parkchester. "I don't have any reasoning as to why."

Birch provides services, including early childhood learning, to 1,500 kids and adults across the city, many affected by physical, mental and emotional disabilities, according to company's website.

"We don't agree," said another Birch employee in The Bronx who declined to give her name. "This is a great establishment."

City officials say they are working with parents from the four Birch sites to place their children in pre-K's suited to the development level of their child.

Raquel Pottinger, executive director of Alpha Academy, in Jamaica, is also on the list of nine schools not likely to open this year. She had enrolled 40 kids.

The Department of Education told Pottinger in a letter Wednesday that her "proposed site was inadequate" and that the nonprofit was not incorporated in New York state. The letter also raised issues about tax liens and misdemeanor convictions they said were on Pottinger's record. 

The agency gave Pottinger 10 business days to respond or risk not being awarded a contract.

In an interview, Pottinger said she explained to the DOE that her site would not be ready by Thursday because she switched locations about a month ago to a space that was formerly a preschool. She said the DOE has failed to deliver promised grant money that would allow her to speed repairs to the new site.

And Pottinger says she explained to the DOE that the tax lien amounts they have are incorrect and that she is waiting for the Internal Revenue Service to apply a refund credit to her account greater than the liens. She said the alleged misdemeanors were one speeding ticket for which she has a payment plan.

"Everything has been explained," she said. "I feel like I was railroaded."

Pottinger said the inspection and investigation process that unfolded over the last several days was "confusing and hectic." During the application process, Pottinger says the DOE repeatedly asked for documents she had already supplied.

Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the de Blasio administration last week for not turning over almost 70 percent of the 500 pre-K contracts from independent providers for review. De Blasio and his allies dismissed the criticism. As of Wednesday, the comptroller's office had received 186 contracts from the DOE and had registered 102 of them.

Pottinger said she was led to believe she was going to have a delayed opening while she resolved outstanding issues. Instead, she says she found out through the news media that the city had put her Jamaica Avenue preschool on the list of sites unlikely to open this year.

"To find out you are not opening through the media — I was devastated," said Pottinger, who has 21 years experience as a teacher, assistant principal and principal in New York City schools.

Even though she may not be a universal pre-K provider this year, Pottinger said she still plans to open her site. Half of the four teachers Pottinger hired have decided to hang around a while longer and several families say they will wait for Alpha Academy to open.

"I've never had a defeatist attitude," Pottinger said. "My goal is to get open somehow."

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