Pre-K, school social workers in forefront of negotiations as NYC nears a budget deal

Officials inched closer to a deal on the city’s nearly $100 billion budget Thursday, with one education issue gaining consensus: equal pay for preschool teachers.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson hinted that a deal is close to achieving top budget goals, including raising wages for early educators at non-profit organizations who teach most of the students in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature universal pre-K program, but earn considerably less than their counterparts in programs run by the district.

“I think the really big one is, we need pay parity for these childcare workers and providers — we need, need, need it,” Johnson said. “It is a huge amount of money, but it is worth it. It is the right thing to do. It has been an injustice for far too long, and we need to get it done.”

But preschool teacher pay parity isn’t the only issue on the table in negotiations between City Hall and local lawmakers. Also under consideration: Whether to reduce the number of schools that don’t have access to a single social worker and boost social service personnel dedicated to students living in temporary housing.

Sources briefed on budget negotiations said there was agreement to significantly reduce the number of schools that don’t have a single social worker. A City Hall spokesman declined to comment.

A handshake agreement between the mayor and council is expected soon. Here are several education issues we’re watching as the budget process comes to a close.

Achieving pay parity

All signs indicate that City Council may reach a multi-million-dollar deal to bump salaries for pre-K workers at community-based organizations — a significant development that Johnson said the City Council unsuccessfully tried to address in last year’s budget negotiations.

The salary gap among providers — many of them women of color — has been a point of contention about the mayor’s signature universal pre-K program, which he has touted on the campaign trail for president.

To level salaries for teachers alone, one estimate puts the cost at $438 million over the next five years. City Council wants to boost pay for support staff, too, which will significantly increase the dollar amount.

About 60% of the city’s publicly funded childcare programs are run by community-based organizations. Staff at public schools can earn up to 60% more than their peers who work at public schools.

But a budget deal would not be the last step to increasing salaries. The city must also resolve collective bargaining negotiations with unionized pre-K providers, who almost went on strike in May over salary parity. The city would need to tweak the new contracts it recently issued for pre-K providers to bid on and possibly renegotiate current contracts to address salary boosts.

Adding social workers at schools that don’t have them…

Some city officials, including education committee chairman Mark Treyger and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, have ratcheted up calls to hire social workers for the 716 schools that don’t have a dedicated one — and a deal appeared close to closing that gap.

Two sources briefed on the budget negotiations said there was agreement to fund roughly 200 additional social workers in high-need schools. (The cost of hiring a social worker for every school that doesn’t have a dedicated one would be $95 million, according to the Independent Budget Office.)

How to support the city’s record-high number of homeless students has been a contentious issue in the last two budget cycles — and big questions remain about how much support a final deal will offer.

…but not necessarily for students in temporary housing

In his opening budget proposal, de Blasio eliminated funding for a separate group of social workers who specifically work with students in temporary housing for the second straight year, but later added funding back for 69 of them (and agreed to fund a baseline level of 53 in the future). The city also announced it will spend $12 million on 100 coordinators and other support for schools with high concentrations of homeless students.

Still, advocates have called for 31 more social workers for schools that enroll 70 or more students living in shelters and that don’t have one.

“We know the Council has been fighting for an influx of school social workers for high-needs schools, as well as an increase in Bridging the Gap social workers to assist students living in shelters,” said Randi Levine, policy director for Advocates for Children, a group that has lobbied for additional counselors.

“Given the numerous calls we get about children’s mental health needs going unaddressed in school, increasing the number of school social workers is a priority.”