A contentious meeting of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s Board of Directors ended abruptly last week when the Board voted to adjourn prematurely, leaving unresolved the question of whether the corporation would enter into contract negotiations with the Roosevelt Island Youth Program (RIYP) for a three-year commitment to run the Island’s Youth Center.
The meeting, which was alternately punctuated with jeers and applause from a standing-room-only crowd at Manhattan Park’s Theater Club, followed roughly 45 minutes of public testimony from both supporters and detractors of RIYP and its leadership. Eighteen speakers, including several Island teens, addressed the Board during the public session. While many praised the program’s history and role in the community, others accused the group’s leadership of creating a hostile environment for them and their children, leading a campaign of misinformation, and for ignoring parent concerns.
“When you have this kind of division on something so sensitive, it pays to be extra diligent and take our time,” said Board Chair Alejandro Valella shortly before tabling the motion. “I don’t get a sense of closure on this.”
The following day, RIOC announced it would hire outside counsel to investigate accusations against RIYP executive director, Charlie DeFino.
Islanders packed the Manhattan Park Theater Club to attend Thursday’s RIOC Board meeting.
Seeking a Provider
At stake is the question of who will receive a $380,000 annual contract to provide free youth services at the Island’s two-story, 7,000-square-foot Youth Center.
In response to a solicitation for applications last fall, two Island groups stepped forward: RIYP, which has run the center for decades; and Island Kids, a local organization, run by longtime resident Nikki Leopold, that provides afterschool care, youth enrichment classes, and a summer camp on the Island.
In January, an independent committee reviewed both applications and gave the final nod to RIYP, largely based on the group’s experience running the center in the past. Scoring sheets obtained from RIOC show that Island Kids received the top average score in every other category, including management and operation plan, ability to perform required services, and an interview, a point which several speakers commented on during last Thursday’s meeting.
In a statement read by another attendee, Island parent Sarah Lenzi, questioned the emphasis placed on the group’s experience. “From the scoring sheet, clearly ‘experience’ was weighted equally with ability to provide programming. It’s not clear to me that 30 years compared to [Island Kids’] 25 is a significant difference; with those kinds of distinctions we’ve moved out of the realm of experience and into the realm of longevity… This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the quality of program that would be run.”
Many of the supporters of RIYP who spoke at the public session praised the group for offering a place where Island youth could hang out with friends and for promoting youth sports on the Island. Nia Bethea, who said she had participated in many of RIYP’s sports programs over the years, described the organization as a family that was always there for each other. “Please don’t break apart this family,” she told Board members.
RIYP’s program coordinator, Andrey Chichagov, said he had worked with thousands of Island children and families in the 13 years he has been employed by RIYP. “Through sports, I believe you can get the most out of kids,” he told Board members. “We were independently selected to lead and deliver the best program for this community. [RIYP detractors] do not realize that, in taking away our program, they sabotage and undermine our work.”
Island parent and former RIYP volunteer coach, Miguel Pincay, however, complained of disorganization within the group’s sports program and accused the program’s leadership of ignoring parent concerns. Pincay said that RIYP is the only organization he’s volunteered at where no background checks are done on coaches, where no certification is necessary, and where, instead of merit or passion, some coaches have their positions because of a personal relationship with DeFino.
“By giving RIYP this money, you are telling us that we should just accept mediocrity and that parents who want to do better should just stand aside,” he told the Board. “As a coach, as a parent, how do I change that attitude, that culture, where it doesn’t matter what you say; where being prepared, knowing the sport, having the certification, knowing about child development aren’t valued?”
Others accused the group’s leadership of unprofessional behavior and divisive tactics they said were further dividing the community.
Phoebe Flynn, a parent of two boys and a former Island Kids board member, told RIOC, “For as long as I can remember there has been a monopoly of youth services on the Island and it seems to be answerable to no one, uninterested in expanding its programing, unwilling to improve and grow with the changing needs of the Island. If it was as successful as it claims, it should have run circles around its competitors and won this contract hands down. The fact that it failed to do that twice should be a red flag, as should the loss of the Beacon contract, an indication that neither the school’s administration nor the parent body want to work with them anymore.”
Last spring, PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman declined to allow RIYP to compete for a contract to continue running the City-sponsored Beacon program, which provides free afterschool services. In explaining her reasoning to the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), she wrote that RIYP “presented themselves as entitled to be considered by DYCD simply because they were the existing provider, without recognizing any need to demonstrate their abilities or qualifications at their meeting with the school staff and parents…In response to questions about how to measure their staff’s success, they primarily cited attendance and lateness, with virtually no focus on actual performance.”
Flynn also criticized RIYP for distributing emails to Island parents that included false claims that the Island’s free youth programming was in jeopardy if the group was not selected, including an email the day of the meeting by RIYP’s DeFino which directed parents to a form letter they could submit to RIOC Board members.
“An effective youth program shouldn’t have to depend on fear-mongering and a campaign of disinformation,” said Flynn. “It shouldn’t refer to its competitors as ‘losers’ in a widely distributed email.”
The email mass mailed to Island parents hours before the Board meeting.
During his turn at the mic, RIYP Director Roy Magsisi dropped a thick stack of papers on the podium, which he told Board members contained background checks and fingerprint data for all of his staff, as well as over 600 letters of support for RIYP. “I want to dispel a couple of rumors that are out there: Our staff is fingerprinted. There is a criminal background list for every employee. They are all CPR First Aid and AID certified.” When asked after the meeting whether the stack of background checks included one for Executive Director Charlie DeFino, at whom many of the community’s complaints had been directed, he said he wasn’t sure, but said DeFino does not directly supervise the kids.
RIOC Board Chair Alejandro Valella, Susan Rosenthal, Jacqueline Flug, Margie Smith, and David Kraut listen to public testimony.
A Divided Board
Citing the large turnout and heated commentary, Board Chairperson Alejandro Valella asked to adjourn the item for further review. “For the life of me, I don’t see how you have this kind of discord and not take your time,” he said.
Board member Fay Christian agreed. “I think it’s important to hear from the community,” she said. “I think there is a legitimate concern when the people who are making the judgement did not have any input from the community...I don’t think experience shouldn’t be the deciding factor.”
Board members Margie Smith and David Kraut disagreed and said they were ready to vote on the award. “I have seen worse conflicts than this,” Kraut told Valella, “I have seen every kind of argument between all kinds of people. We are a contentious bunch of people.” Addressing a rowdy audience, he added, “I suggest you send your complaints to Alex [Alejandro Valella]. Leave me alone. I’m ready to vote on this.”
RIOC says it will take up the issue again at its March 1 Board meeting. RIYP’s current contract is in place until March 31.