Teachers waiting for city’s pre-K pay promise

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With a handshake, Mayor Bill de Blasio and council Speaker Corey Johnson agreed to a 2019-20 budget that included “promises to create a pathway” to equal pay for all teachers in the city’s Pre-K For All program.

But the agreement lacks specifics — like pay criteria and actual dollar amounts — which leaves pre-kindergarten directors wondering if next school year will ease a growing salary disparity between community-based organizations and city-funded pre-K.

Currently, teachers with the same experience and education can make $30,000 less if they work for a community-based organization compared to those at public schools.

“It’s the same requirement,” Judith Menken, director of Spuyten Duyvil Nursery School said. “How can it not be the same salary?”

Few people question the success of de Blasio’s universal pre-K program. But it’s come at a price for community-based organizations — city-funded pre-K programs running in participating charter, private or parochial preschools. City contracts pay community-based organization teachers between 60 to 70 percent of what public pre-school teachers make. That funding doesn’t include health insurance or pensions, or pay for extras like classroom enrichment.

“Some (community-based preschools’) turnover is enormous because they’ve got young teachers,” Menken said. “And when they turn 26 and are kicked off their parents’ insurance, they go down the block to a DoE center. Or some of them are being directly poached out of their schools by the public schools.”

Kingsbridge Heights Community Center lost a majority of its pre-K teachers who just couldn’t make ends meet on the city-funded salary, said executive director Margaret Della.

“We struggled quite a bit because while our teachers do more work for less hours and less pay compared to DoE teachers, they are paid significantly less,” Della said.

KHCC lost a significant amount of money trying to maintain city-funded pre-K classes while also paying teachers the minimum stated in their union contracts. Ultimately, KHCC had to end its pre-K contracts because the city didn’t pay enough to keep the program going.

“What’s happening is that teachers are being trained in those” community-based organizations, said Marble Hill Nursery School director Karen Worchel said. “And as soon as they get their master’s and they’re ready to move out, they leave the CBOs for the public schools, for the better pay and benefits.”

Community-based organizations are constantly struggling to attract, train and keep qualified staff, but that’s made nearly impossible when the pay is so different.

“It’s really unfair because the teachers are doing exactly the same job, and teachers with exactly the same credentials aren’t being paid the same amount,” Worchel said.

The city’s education department changed its funding method for the upcoming academic year.

Community-based organizations will now submit requests for proposals which, once accepted by the city, would provide funding for an overall contract value instead of on an enrollment basis.

Education officials are touting RFPs as a solution to funding problems, but community-based organizations are uncertain how much of their request will be approved and how to plan for next year if the city comes back with a much lower number.

“You can’t plan if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Menken said.

There are no guidelines to help community-based organizations calculate what they should request, she said. Menken submitted a proposal based on what the city pays its teachers, but didn’t calculate in expenses like building upkeep. Her proposal asks for a $7,000 increase in funding per child over the 2015 contract the city has repeatedly renewed.

“They’re probably not going to hand me a check for that amount,” she said. “We’ll probably have to go back and forth for a while, so I can’t say how much they’ll actually fund.”

When Pre-K for All debuted in 2014, there were no seats in public schools available in Councilman Andrew Cohen’s district.

Community-based organizations stepped up and made room in their programs.

“People had to move heaven and earth to get the capacity there, and they did it,” Cohen said. “They have been subsequently treated very poorly as the city has built out capacity in various school buildings, undermining enrollment in CBOs. And then, when their enrollment goes down, claiming they’re in violation of their contract.”

These preschools tolerated low city funding for years, but it’s reached a breaking point.

“You can’t provide early child care without a (universal pre-K) contract these days,” Cohen said. “So the CBOs are dependent on the contracts, and they have done themselves a disservice in accepting these terms that are unacceptable. But they’re not willing to accept it anymore, which I think is smart.”

The city’s promise to address pay parity is a first step, but community-based organizations will remain guarded until more details are made public.

“The agreement still seems tentative,” Della said, “so I’m not sure what I could speak to until it is finalized and we see what is truly addressed.”

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