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Auditors Find Safety Hazards at Pre-K Facilities in New York City

June 7, 2019

An examination of the New York City’s Department of Education’s (DOE) oversight of Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) programs found classrooms with potential fire and safety hazards, toxic cleaning supplies and peeling paint, according to an audit released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

“New York City is leading the way in providing access to Universal Pre-K programs, but some providers have health and safety hazards in their facilities that need to be fixed immediately,” DiNapoli said. “Young children should not be exposed to unsafe conditions such as peeling paint and missing window guards. The city’s Department of Education is taking action on our recommendations so all children have a safe learning environment.”

The UPK program was established by the state in 1997 to provide all eligible four-year-olds in the state with the opportunity for an early childhood education and a new statutory framework was implemented in 2014. In January 2014, New York City released a plan to dramatically expand its existing pre-kindergarten program.

In NYC, UPK is offered in public school settings through programs operated by the DOE, and through contracts with eligible community-based organizations (referred to as contracted center-based and contracted school-based). For the 2016-17 school year, there were 72,176 students enrolled in approximately 1,900 UPK programs in the city at a cost of $850 million.

State regulations require buildings and classrooms used for UPK to be safe and to comply with applicable fire safety, health and building codes. Equipment and furnishings must be maintained in a state of good repair, clean, and safe and suitable for children.

DiNapoli’s auditors reviewed the operations and finances of 33 NYC UPK providers – 15 DOE school-based, 11 contracted center-based and 7 contracted school-based – to determine the adequacy of the DOE’s monitoring of their compliance with applicable regulations.

At the 15 sampled DOE school-based UPK programs, auditors observed 39 instances that created, or could have resulted in, unsafe and unhealthy conditions. These included expired fire extinguishers, peeling paint, unclean and unsafe outdoor play areas, radiators without protective guards and toxic cleaning materials in areas accessible to students.

At one provider, the gym was separated from the cafeteria and auditorium by two wooden dividers that had protruding nails and staples. A student was injured when his hand was caught on one of the nails and required stitches, according to teachers working there.

Auditors observed 24 health and safety violations during site visits to 11 contracted center-based UPK providers. At one provider, there were cleaning materials on the floor of the hallways and at another location, bleach was accessible to the children in the laundry room.

During site visits to the seven contracted school-based UPK providers, auditors observed 21 health and safety violations. At one provider, a climbable 6-ft chain link fence surrounding the outdoor play area was topped with barbed wire. At the same provider, several windows did not have window guards, as required.

DiNapoli’s auditors also found:

  • School- and center-based programs are governed by different health code articles with separate regulations (i.e., certain requirements are included in one article but not in the other);
  • Three of nine contracted center-based providers and five of the 15 DOE school-based programs did not comply with fire drill requirements;
  • The safety plans for six of the seven contracted school-based providers and seven of the 11 contracted center-based providers were incomplete; and
  • Some expenses reported to the DOE by 10 of the 18 contracted providers in their end-year fiscal reports for the 2015-16 school year were not documented.

DiNapoli recommended DOE:

  • Work with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to align the health code requirements governing center-based and school-based programs;
  • Ensure that UPK providers comply with applicable provisions of the law, regulations, and health code to assure a safe and healthy environment for UPK program students;
  • Ensure that all required fire drills are conducted at the required times and that fire drill logs are properly maintained; and
  • Perform reviews of end-year fiscal reports on a sample basis. Request and review documentation to confirm that expenses claimed by contracted providers are supported and used solely for the UPK program and that unspent funds are returned to the DOE.

DOE generally agreed with the audit’s recommendations and has indicated it plans to improve oversight of the UPK program. The department’s full response is included in the final report.

Read the audit, or go to: https://osc.state.ny.us/audits/allaudits/093019/sga-2019-16n7.pdf

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