Mayor Bill de Blasio, his signature proposal suddenly taking unexpected criticism from an ally, strongly defended the city's readiness to launch its massive pre-kindergarten program and stressed the unprecedented speed of expansion has not compromised safety.
De Blasio announced Thursday that 50,000 students have enrolled to begin pre-K for the first day of school on Sept. 4, just 3,000 shy of maximum capacity. But he quickly pivoted from leading the cheers to providing a vigorous rebuttal to the scathing report issued the day before by Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Sparking a back-and-forth not previously seen in city government since Democrats assumed all the top elected offices in January, Stringer said that the Department of Education had not provided more than 70 percent of the city's contracts with pre-K providers to his office, preventing his staff from doing what he said are crucial safety checks.
De Blasio said he didn't know what to make of that.
"If the question is health and safety," he said, "I think it's quite evident we're focused and we've got a lot of serious professionals on it."
He added curtly: "I don't know why any public official would want to leave parents with a misimpression that there's a danger when there isn't any."
De Blasio, flanked by city commissioners seemingly to display a sense of command, said a variety of city agencies, such as the Department of Health and the Administration for Children's Services, were thoroughly vetting classrooms and pre-K staff as the program grows by more than 30,000 students from June. He said only five sites have outstanding serious violations.
By law, every pre-K staffer must clear a background check, though a teacher whose approval is pending is permitted to deal with children if a cleared supervisor is present.
But when pressed, neither de Blasio nor Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett could provide a percentage of teachers cleared to work in the nearly 1,100 community-based organizations hosting pre-K students. About 600 public school buildings also will have pre-K classes.
All the pre-K classrooms will open Sept. 4 even if their contracts haven't been submitted to the comptroller.
Stringer doubled down on his safety concerns at a news conference shortly after de Blasio spoke. The comptroller urged City Hall to turn over the delayed contracts and said he would consider taking legal action to obtain them.
"I am calling on City Hall to tell me when we will be receiving the 500 contracts," he said. "I want a due date. I want it now. I want them to stop playing games."
Officials in Stringer's office said they found problems with nearly half of the contracts they have received, and the comptroller said that without receiving more he would not guarantee the sites' safety.
He downplayed the safety review done by city agencies, saying "they all work for the mayor" while stressing his own independence.
The city's other top Democrats have backed de Blasio. Public Advocate Letitia James stood with the mayor at his press conference and strongly criticized Stringer's report while purposefully not mentioning his name. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, in a statement, took a slightly more cautious tone, saying the council would provide oversight as the pre-K program launches.