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Low pay for some NYC preschool directors is ‘discriminatory,’ lawsuit claims

A pre-school staff member works with a young boy with blocks in the classroom. They are both wearing protective masks.

Some pre-K directors earn far less than others, with differences falling largely along racial lines. Above, a teacher works with a student at the Joan Snow Pre-K Center in Brooklyn on Nov. 30, 2021.

Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office

The union representing certain pre-K leaders is suing the New York City Education Department over what the union calls “discriminatory” salary gaps that fall largely along racial lines.

At issue are the sharp pay disparities between directors who work in community-run programs, which contract with the education department to provide free and subsidized care for working families, and those who run programs overseen directly by the education department. 

The differences are especially striking because 92% of directors at community-run sites are women of color. Only 31% of those in city-run centers are Black or Latino, according to figures from the suit. 

But those in community-run sites — often referred to as CBOs, short for “community based organizations” — earn about $61,000 less than their counterparts in city-run programs, according to the complaint filed in Manhattan supreme court on Wednesday by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. 

“That, right there, is glaring at us as a stark equity issue,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “This is discrimination.”

The union represents about 171 preschool directors. Their contract expired in September 2020, and negotiations over pay have stalled, the lawsuit states. Negotiations happen between the union and the Day Care Council of New York, which represents providers, as well as the city’s Office of Labor Relations. 

The Day Care Council, which is also named in the suit, has supported boosting directors’ pay. But the city holds the purse strings for most programs, through contracts with centers. 

Gregory Brender, director of public policy for the Day Care Council, said in an email that “early childhood education providers are an underpaid and under-appreciated workforce.” He said the council “continues to seek fair and equitable compensation for community-based early childhood education directors.”

The lawsuit takes aim at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most heralded accomplishment — expanding free childcare — just as he weighs a run for New York governor. It comes just a few years after teachers in community-run programs earned significant raises after threatening to strike over similar pay disparities while de Blasio ran an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for president. 

Nick Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s law department, said officials will review the suit. He called directors “critical partners” and said the city has made “historic investments” in early childhood education.

The suit claims the pay disparity is a violation of New York state and city human rights laws. The union is demanding back pay along with “all other benefits to which [directors] are entitled.”

Most children in the city’s Pre-K for All and 3-K programs are enrolled in community-run sites. These sites also tend to host other childcare programs that offer free or subsidized care that goes beyond the regular school day and school year. Many operate from early in the morning until late in the evening, and through the summer, when preschool sites run by the city are mostly closed.

Despite the longer work hours, and similar qualifications required for the job, those in community programs earn significantly less. The average salary for a director in a community-run program with two years of experience is $77,010. That’s compared to $138,135 earned by those with the same years of experience who work at city-run sites, according to the suit. 

María Mavrides, a faculty member at Hunter College who has studied compensation and workforce issues in the city’s community-run programs, said the pay gaps contribute to turnover and leave teachers with less support from an experienced leader. In her research, Mavrides found that 60% of centers included in a random sample of 45 programs had director turnover in the last year. 

“They did not feel like the salary was sufficient to cover the amount of work and effort they were doing,” she said.  “Everyone thought that their compensation was insulting. And teachers could also attest to that tension — that their directors were feeling overwhelmed and underpaid.” 

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