Red tape divides preschool friends


Judith Menken, director of the Spuyten Duyvil Preschool, told the parents that she had been caught between the rules of the departments of Buildings, Health and Education.

City officials tell her the school’s classes have too many students, she said, forcing her to make a decision between sending some children to another preschool, breaking up classes – and friendships – to create smaller classes, hiring an additional teacher or keep paying fines for violations. The school has already been fined for “over-enrollment,” Menken said.

The option she chose was to create a new pre-K class, which had to be done by Jan. 23, she said during the meeting with parents on Jan. 12, denouncing the city requirements that forced her to separate children from their friends in the middle of the school year.

Parents were similarly upset.

“I think it’s ludicrous that they’re trying to implement these changes in the middle of the school year and disrupt 3- and 4-year-olds,” Stephenie Skyllas said. Her son Charlie is one of the six students who would be reassigned to a new class, but she had kept the news from him so far, trying not to alarm him, she said in a Jan. 13 phone interview.

“People whose kids are in Charlie’s class said they’re going to be devastated because they are losing their friend Charlie from the class,” she said. While she understands the city’s concerns about overcrowding, “their responsibility was to do that in the beginning of the school year,” she said.

Sean August, whose son Jacob will remain in the original pre-K class, agreed with Skyllas.

“He doesn’t understand why his friends cannot stay in the same classroom with him,” August said in an email to The Press. “I asked Jacob how he feels about the change, and he said, ‘I feel sad and mad.  I don’t want my friends to leave.’”

“To tear apart friendships and cause a disruption in their daily routine will create anxiety and/or confusion for some students. The decision to separate them was not made with the welfare of the children in mind,” he added.

According to the school’s certificate of occupancy issued by the Buildings Department in the 1990s, a room can accommodate up to 20 people. But the Health Department, which granted her permit for the pre-K program, has different rules, saying that Menken’s classes can only have up to 17 students, she said. The Buildings Department, however, maintains that its figures were the correct ones, since it issues occupancy certificates, she said. Moreover, the Health Department inspected her school in 2015 and said nothing at that time about the school having 20 students in its classrooms.

“They both can’t be right,” Menken said. “You never talk to someone who understands the other agency.”

Then there is also the Education Department. Menken said she had a phone conversation with one of its officials last summer, who spoke about her classes accommodating 20 students each.

A Health Department spokesperson said in an email to The Press that “the school must follow the numbers the Health Department prescribes, which never exceeds the limit provided on the DOB-issued certificate of occupancy.”

The requirements for the Spuyten Duyvil Preschool must have been set “in or before 2004, which is as far back as our system goes,” the Health Department spokesperson said.

The Buildings Department redirected inquiries to the Education Department: “The Department of Buildings does not tell schools how many children are allowed per classroom, that decision is made by DOE which cannot exceed the legal limit provided on the certificate of occupancy,” a Buildings Department spokesman said in an email.

The Education Department provided no specifics. A spokesperson said in an email the department’s “focus is on free, full-day, high-quality pre-K for all students, and we’ll continue to work with this provider and families to ensure we are best serving students.”

Menken said the school is not in danger of closing but the cost of rearranging classes would put a strain on its finances. The school moved from half-day to full-day programming in 2015 but its executives were concerned about getting city funds on time to pay the school’s bills.

A more than $100,000 payment to the school from the Education Department was delayed, prompting the preschool had to borrow money to cover teacher salaries, said Vanessa Kim, a board member and treasurer at the preschool. The funds have since arrived.

A year ago, the school took out a $450,000 loan to cover the cost of renovations, which included building an annex, fixing a crumbling exterior wall and repairing the foundation.

“We did the mortgage not because we didn’t have enough money—it’s because we were afraid, as a board, to take such a huge risk because of the issues we were having with [Universal Pre-K],” Kim said.

Menken said she is not challenging the Education Department’s decision on the class size or the request to hire a second teacher. But she would like the DOE to cover $13,000 in one-time additional expenses.

In an email to Menken dated Jan. 13, an Education Department official said: “Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way for us to amend your per-child rate or provide any additional one-time funds.” In an email to The Press, the department confirmed it “does not provide additional funding” outside of “approved contracts.”

Instead, the preschool should consider cutting its programs or staff, the Education Department official said in the email to Menken.

“We chose this school because of all of the enrichment programs, and the DOE wants to strip us of that so we can take our six kids and put them in a smaller classroom,” August, the student’s father said. “They are not thinking of the well-being of the children at all.”