The question of who will operate the 7,000-square-foot Youth Center at 506 Main Street for the next three to five years appears to be nearing an answer.
Last week, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, which is in charge of the Youth Center, confirmed that a proposal by the Roosevelt Island Youth Program (RIYP) had received the highest score by an outside committee. The contract requires approval by RIOC’s Board of Directors, and is expected to be put to a vote at its January 25 meeting.
If the recommendation is approved, it will mark a final chapter in a blistering 16-month tussle over who will receive a $380,000 annual contract, including free use of the space, to provide free youth services on the Island. Only two Island organizations made a bid for the latest version of the contract: the RIYP, which has been the operator for close to 40 years, and Island Kids, a 25-year-old program that offers after-school and enrichment programs, as well as a summer camp.
The Youth Center at 506 Main Street is a multi-story, 7,000-square-foot space. At the moment, according to RIOC, it serves about 35 kids a day.
News that the RIYP would likely continue to run the Youth Center was met with a negative reaction by most parents who responded, with some exceptions. Many took to Facebook to share their outrage or relief.
Jax Schott, a mother of two, expressed dismay that the contract would once again be going to a program that she feels does not adequately serve the Island community and has largely operated without oversight. “It’s about showing accountability,” she said. “Where is the money going? Why is the center so run down and unsafe? I didn’t even know half the programs being offered. Where was it advertised?”
RIYP does not have a webpage with programming listed, and its Facebook page, while active, does not include a programming schedule. (What its Facebook page did have this week was an animation of a dancing Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with the taunt, “Keep dancing on my grave,” the group’s apparent response to learning it had come out on top.)
Island parent and President of the Parent-Teacher Association at PS/IS 217, Erin Olavesen, agrees with Schott’s concerns. She penned a letter, signed by nearly 50 families, urging the RIOC Board to delay its vote until appropriate oversight could be assured and the group’s concerns were addressed (see Letters page 14). “This community is lucky enough to have a Youth Center, where there is supposed to be free, drop-in programming, and it sits empty for the most part because parents are afraid to send their children there,” the letter states in part.
But parent Yitza Martinez, a 30-year resident, disagrees. She says the RIYP represents a comforting connection to her own youth, when she too attended the program. “I grew up in the youth program with Mr. Charlie as the leader. We were always safe. Now as a mother, I 100 percent trust my children [there]. And that is because I know that Mr. Charlie and his staff will make sure that not only my children, but all children in his facility, are safe.”
Lisa Schwartz-Rodriguez, who sends her daughter to free piano and violin lessons at the Youth Center, says she couldn’t be happier with the music instructors she’s met. “I know so many kids who would be devastated to lose their free classes and programs.”
The guidelines set out by RIOC stipulate that any provider selected would be required to offer free programming, though the specific offerings would depend on the operator chosen. According to RIOC’s Public Information Officer Alonza Robertson, 15 - 35 children attend the two-story center daily. In contrast, the Beacon program at PS/IS 217 has an enrollment of 175 children daily.
Schott, like many other parents, say their concern and distrust isn’t directed at the instructors as much as the program’s leadership, executive director Charlie Defino. “The people who are on top make many mothers feel very uncomfortable and unsafe.”
Khadijah Lucero James, a mother of five who grew up on the Island, was once an employee with RIYP, but says she was let go a few weeks after filing a complaint against Defino with the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) for similar reasons. “There have been people who have spoken up, including a formal report made to DYCD by me,” says James. She said Defino had used racially and sexually charged language to both youth and staff. Also, she says, “What gives him lifetime immunity?”
RIYP Treasurer Steve Kaufman disputes the allegation, characterizing James as “a disgruntled former employee.”
James understands a lot of the loyalty for Defino, however. “A lot of people would rather have a dysfunctional director than one that doesn’t care about them at all,” she says, adding, “Both [perspectives] can be true.”
For Martinez, the question is at least partly about history. “At least with Charlie we know exactly what to expect.” Martinez describes him as, “the crazy Godfather we’ve all heard about; he’s got everyone’s back – unless you’re working against him, then you are disowned.”
For many parents that characterization is at the heart of the issue.
The final scoring sheet for the Youth Center applicants shows RIYP's score in the Experience category tipping the scales. Island Kids was the top score winner in each of the other categories.
The Youth Center award marks RIOC’s second attempt in the past year to select an operator for the Youth Center. The first application process was abruptly canceled last January after the initial scoring resulted in a tie between RIYP and Island Kids.
“The first RFP was never deemed invalid,” corrects RIOC General Counsel Jacqueline Flug. “The dialogue on the Island and the accusations made it untenable, and RIOC deemed that it was never supposed to be an RFP but a grant. The scoring was never ‘thrown out,’ the whole RFP was withdrawn.”
Prior to the announcement, RIYP had engaged in a week-long campaign to garner support for their organization, including passing a petition and sending an email to Island parents falsely claiming that free Island programming would end if the group was not selected. Perhaps most damning for the survival of that RFP was a letter widely shared by RIYP supporter Frank Farance accusing a competing organization of wrongdoing.
This time around, the selection process was conducted by outside organizations, including the Office of Children and Family Services, and Patricia Pell, the interim director of the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery. Flug says, “The only way to proceed was to remove RIOC. It was clear to us from the RFP process that the bias, prejudice, opinions were so embedded that it was hard to find appropriate raters.”
A Rough Year
By most measures, it has not been an easy year for the RIYP.
Over the summer, the RIYP lost a second $472,000 contract it had long held to run a City-sponsored Beacon after-school program at PS/IS 217. The contract was ultimately awarded to an off-Island group, The Child Center of NY.
In response, the RIYP opened a competing after-school program out of the Youth Center in the fall. Then, in early October the group was told to “immediately cease and desist operations” of that programming by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS).
According to Craig Smith, assistant director for public information at the agency, they had been operating without the license required for the type of after-school programming they were running. The group has since restructured their programming to avoid need for the license.
In her letter, Olavesen questions whether the scorers were provided with adequate information about the bidders to make an informed decision, including information about the cease-and-desist order RIYP had received.
Robertson says no. “The scorers were not informed about the cease-and-desist because [RIYP] was not being judged on that kind of program.” Because the application is not calling for a formal after-school program, Robertson says RIOC considers any violations in connection to it irrelevant.
“How is it possible that a group’s inability or unwillingness to follow state regulations is not relevant to their application to run a youth program?” asks Olavesen.
The situation has led some parents to question whether RIOC is willing, or able to provide oversight to any youth center operator.
During a discussion at a February 2017 RIOC Board meeting about whether to extend grant funds to RIYP for six months, Sean Singh, grant writer for RIOC, told the Board that, in consideration of the funding, “we will be increasing the controls over the operator...including information regarding attendance, programming, staffing, as well as [requiring] a six-month budget of all necessary funds. And we will do drop-ins.”
In October, RIOC acknowledged that no such oversight had taken place.
Since then, however, RIOC says it has been more proactive. Although no drop-ins have been performed, RIOC does receive self-reported monthly reports on attendance and offerings at the Youth Center.
Flug says that the initial RFP and this second attempt are RIOC’s effort to correct their prior lack of oversight and involvement in the Youth Center. “This whole grant application and the prior RFP are an attempt to take ownership and get the best program in there that we can.”
In the past, says Flug, “There was little recognition from RIOC the corporation, and the RIOC board, that RIOC actually owns the Youth Center. It is our building, our facility. My understanding is that RIOC was just cutting checks.”
Robertson says that details of the program’s oversight are still being hammered out. “Once the award is approved, a contract will be drawn up that addresses a lot of the concerns over evaluation and monitoring, including how often, and who will do it.” RIOC says that will include drop-ins, background checks, and fingerprinting of employees. Currently none of the staff or volunteers have been fingerprinted. That is not part of the current contract RIOC has with RIYP.
He says they will also address programming. RIOC does not want their program to compete with the Beacon, but to provide an additional resource for Island youth. Flug clarified that the contract was only to run the Youth Center; recreational sports are not included. “If they want to run activities like a little league or soccer league, that won’t be with RIOC money going forward. What was done in the past was problematic,” she says.
“I think we need to move forward in good faith, and allow the process to work,” says Robertson. “RIOC is only looking toward the future,” adds Flug. “We’re a new administration – a very young administration.”