Defending a day care center

October 8, 2012

Monty Vyse reports on protests against the closing of a Brooklyn day care center.

STAFF AND supporters of a tiny organization operating a small day care center in Brooklyn are publicly confronting the city agency in charge of day care and Head Start.

In doing so, they are exposing some ugly truths about the bureaucratic arrogance and dishonesty of using the mask of reform and quality improvement to cut day care services and destroy community-based organizations with links to the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Ordinarily, high-level bureaucrats in big-city agencies don't have to confront the consequences of their policy decisions. Consultants develop plans and concept papers. Press releases and PowerPoint presentations are rolled out. Contracts are awarded. Life within the offices and conference rooms goes on.

This all changed in August when staff, parents and supporters of Alonzo A. Daughtry Memorial Day Care Service, Inc. began demonstrating in front of the headquarters of city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS), the massive $2.7 billion agency in charge of foster care, child protection, preventive services, juvenile justice, Head Start and day care.

Rev. Herbert Daughtry (second from right) stands with fellow protesters to defend the day care center he founded
Rev. Herbert Daughtry (second from right) stands with fellow protesters to defend the day care center he founded

Protesters demanded that the city take responsibility for lowering Daughtry's score in a bidding process that resulted in Daughtry being de-funded after 43 years of providing day care in Brooklyn. An unidentified whistle-blower from inside the agency informed Daughtry's director about a strange sequence of events that resulted in the score being lowered below the acceptable standard for continued funding.

Demonstrators engaged in acts of civil disobedience--among them 81-year-old Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a Brooklyn pastor and civil rights activist who founded the center.

NEW YORK City has lost 17,700 day care slots between 2006 and 2011--a 15 percent decline--due to successive rounds of budget cuts. And this is despite the fact that less than 25 percent of potentially eligible children had access to day care to begin with.

One response from ACS was to consolidate city-funded day care and the federally funded Head Start, for which funding remained constant. The "Early Learn" initiative, as it was called, makes many appealing promises: Early child care programs will have consistent guidelines, standards and staff development requirements. Providers will have to meet high standards for quality and ability to address developmental needs. Programs will be allocated based on community need.

To implement Early Learn, ACS stopped renewing long-term day care contracts and entered into temporary extensions to give all providers a contract expiration date of September 28, 2012, with services to begin under the new Early Learn contracts on October 1.

All providers had to respond to a new, uniform "Request for Proposals" (RFP). Beneath the high-minded rhetoric in the program description, there were some ominous provisions. Most importantly, the consolidation of the programs would be combined with a further reduction of slots--some 5,500, or an additional 6 percent cut in day care.

Programs would have to cover a portion (6.7 percent) of the expenses, meaning that agencies with endowments, other sources of unrestricted revenue or a fundraising base among affluent supporters would have an advantage. It is extremely difficult for an organization known only in low-income communities to raise money from its supporters.

The city also ended its practice of funding health care coverage for day care providers as part of the contracts. If agencies wanted to offer health insurance, they would have to squeeze the cost out of the daily rate paid for child care and their own fundraising--but there was no requirement that they do so. Here again, large providers spreading costs over more facilities would have an advantage, as would those offering no health benefits.

Another problem is the manner in which funding targets "high-need" communities. Many day care programs are located in public housing projects inside neighborhoods that have gentrified around them--meaning that the program may appear in the review process to be serving an affluent neighborhood.

In all areas of children's services, including foster care and after-school programs, the city has been steadily reducing the number of agencies it contracts with, and the losers have been small, minority-led, community-based agencies.

The same process occurred with the Early Learn RFP, as nearly half the existing day care providers were eliminated, and single providers got awards for multiple sites. A single Head Start agency was awarded 8 percent of the city's early child care slots, a concentration that has never occurred before.

According to a spokesperson for AFSCME District Council 1707, which represents day care workers, the agenda behind Early Learn is to use the merger of Head Start and day care to disguise cuts to city-funded day care, and to invite large for-profit organizations to become Head Start providers.

Despite the disadvantages built into the RFP, Daughtry was able to submit a competitive proposal, which achieved an initial combined score from three "independent" reviewers of 82, above the cutoff of 75. Daughtry found out about the first score only because of the whistle-blower who contacted the agency to tell them how the score had been manipulated.

ACS claims that because there was a greater than 18-point discrepancy between the low score and high score among the three reviewers, the reviewers were brought together to "confer," with no direction being given to change any particular score. The whistle-blower told Daughtry that the reviewers were made to understand that the score should be lowered. After the reviewers finished their second round, Daughtry's score had mysteriously fallen by 16 points, to 66, below the cutoff.

According to City Council member Letitia James, Daughtry was on a "political hit list" of day care centers that ACS wanted to eliminate.

Soon after the RFP was announced, 42 of 51 council members called for the process to be delayed to address problems with the requirements. ACS, with the backing of Mayor Bloomberg's City Hall, disregarded the request, and the City Council did nothing further.

The City Council has played its own part in the steady decline in child care services.

Each year, it joins the mayor in what is known locally as the "budget dance." The mayor's budget proposes cuts to day care, libraries, firehouses, after-school programs and other city services that are much more drastic than the administration actually has in mind. Community-based organizations mobilize protest, City Council members join the activists for press conferences denouncing the cuts, and the dance ends with a deal to restore some of the funding.

The dance enables council members to take credit for "saving" vital programs, and the focus on the inevitable deal between the council and the mayor contains and curtails community resistance to austerity. Headlines about the mayor's cuts being thwarted conceal the powerlessness of other elected officials and make it appear as though the executive is subject to democratic control.

THE OUTCOME for Daughtry was never really in doubt. Over the weekend--following the final September 28 afternoon demonstration in front of ACS headquarters and before the expiration of the contracts at midnight--ACS took possession of the premises occupied for 43 years by the Alonzo A. Daughtry Day Care Center.

An effort to get a court order was never much of a threat, because the courts give executive agencies broad discretion in awarding contracts. Since there is no record of an explicit direction to lower Daughtry's scores, the manipulation exposed by the whistle-blower appears to fit comfortably within the rules of the city's procurement process.

The question was never whether it was in the best interests of the children and families served by Daughtry to take away the teachers and staff they knew and supported and bring in a whole new set of people. The question, rather, was whether the administration had the power to do what it did. In Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York, it indisputably does.

Despite this, the men and women who stood up to the bureaucracy by challenging the decision to defund Daughtry accomplished a great deal. By putting themselves on the line in a highly public protest and civil disobedience, they exposed the legal corruption at the heart of the contracting process that allows the bureaucracy to disregard the wishes of communities and families.

They brought unwanted attention to the steady decimation of child care for working families and to the practice of disguising cuts as reforms and quality improvement initiatives. They made the attack on the rights and terms of employment of child care workers more visible.

It remains to be seen whether the Daughtry saga will energize the struggle to save child care services and protect the child care workers under attack. Activists have, however, shown that greater militancy is needed than has been allowed by the choreography of the annual budget dance.

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