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Admission Impossible

Latest Wall Street scandal shows how brutal competition is for a spot in elite preschool

November 20, 2002|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Folks in this town grow their famously thick skins jousting for taxis during rain showers, vying for Yankees playoff tickets and trying to talk their way past the clipboard squad at hot clubs and restaurants.

And if you had any illusions that nursery school offered a respite from the Darwinian struggle of the Naked City, well, fuhgedaboutit.

A major topic of conversation these days on commuter trains, at deli counters and, yes, on the mean streets of the Upper East Side is Citigroup Inc. Chairman Sanford I. Weill's extravagant effort to buy entree into one of the city's most prestigious nursery schools for the twin sons of a key employee.

"You do need connections," mail carrier Elliot Reyes said Tuesday as he wheeled a mail satchel down wind-whipped 3rd Avenue. "I have a couple of celebrities in one building here, and even that doesn't help. You have to know somebody."

Reyes delivers mail to the upscale apartment buildings a block east of the 92nd Street Y, which runs the ultra-exclusive preschool in question, attended by the offspring of such New York icons as Woody Allen.

The program charges up to $14,400 a year for youngsters aged 2 1/2 to 5. It has about 65 openings annually and limits the number of applications to 300. Otherwise, Y spokeswoman Alix Friedman said Tuesday, "our staff would do nothing but interview parents."

Regardless of money or connections, "no child is guaranteed admission," she said. "Every child is evaluated in the same careful way as every other child."

Weill acknowledged last week that he had gone to bat with the Y on behalf of Jack Grubman, former star telecommunications analyst at the firm's Salomon Smith Barney unit. Citigroup also provided a $1-million donation to the Y.

What interests New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer and other investigators is whether there was any quid pro quo involved.

Grubman bragged in a string of e-mails examined by authorities that his part of the bargain was to upgrade his investment rating of a stock he didn't believe in -- namely, AT&T Corp.

Weill, according to Grubman's e-mails, intended to use the upgrade to butter up AT&T Chairman and Citicorp director C. Michael Armstrong and enlist his aid in ousting Weill's rival, then Citicorp co-Chairman John Reed.

Grubman later disavowed the e-mail messages, saying they were lies that he had invented "to inflate my professional importance."

Weill also has denied any connection between the AT&T upgrade and his effort to help Grubman, who left the company in August. He called Grubman's e-mail boasts "sheer nonsense."

Nonsense or not, the flap has the city -- and some of the rest of America -- talking.

Don Imus, who broadcasts his nationally syndicated radio talk show from New York, recommended with characteristic restraint that Weill be "hung by his toes."

Winning points for creativity, Brooklyn-born Al Michaels even worked in a reference to the controversy on ABC's "Monday Night Football." Noting the St. Louis Rams' terrible start this season, Michaels quipped: "Even Jack Grubman couldn't have made a cockamamie 'buy' recommendation on this team."

On Tuesday, three nannies pushing tots in strollers on 91st Street said the brutal competition for preschool slots was nothing new in that well-to-do neighborhood. "Money always talks," said one of the trio, Jean Rowen.

Nancy Kolben, executive director of New York-based Child Care Inc., a lobbying and referral agency, said the Grubman flap has put a spotlight on a very real issue: the lack of adequate and affordable preschool options for parents in New York.

The waiting list for child-care subsidies in the city, she said, is 30,000 families long, and even a subsidy doesn't guarantee that a place will be available.

"Everybody's talking about" the Grubman situation, Kolben said. "This has caught the eye of people with children because they're living it. And this story shows it isn't just poor people."

Not far from the 92nd Street Y, a father with a backpack and a salt-and-pepper goatee was walking with his 3-year-old. The boy attends a less expensive nursery school, the man said, but the admissions process is just as harrowing. "It's treacherous," he said. "People will do anything."

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