The politically connected Brooklyn rabbi who has steered most of the city’s day care vouchers toward Orthodox neighborhoods is now setting his sights on contracts for Head Start and day care centers, he told The Jewish Week.
"We are still experiencing an imbalance, if not in the voucher area, then in the day care and Head Start area," said Rabbi Milton Balkany, dean of the Bais Yakov of Brooklyn in Borough Park. "I want to correct that imbalance."
The vouchers entitle eligible families to be reimbursed $148 per week by the city for child care expenses. More than half the families that received them last year live in four Orthodox sections of Brooklyn, but the rabbi says most local and federal child care funds are spent on some 600 day care and Head Start centers throughout the city, only 19 of which are under Jewish auspices.
Rabbi Balkany, who was dubbed the "Brooklyn Bundler" in a magazine article for his propensity to gather political cash (he delivered $23,000 to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s mayoral and Senate campaigns) said he would use his influence in an effort to increase the number of day care contracts with Jewish institutions.
Leonora Weiner, a spokeswoman for the city Administration of Children’s Services, said the voucher program accounts for 17 percent of the city’s spending on child care. The rest goes to day care centers, while Head Start programs, targeted for low-income families, are administered by ACS with federal funding.
Nicholas Scoppetta, the commissioner of ACS, has referred questions about some of Rabbi Balkany’s practices to the Department of Investigations, he recently told the Daily News, and at least one minority organization is calling for a federal probe of the distribution of the vouchers.
Rabbi Balkany, who has declined other interviews, insisted that the DOI was conducting an "audit" of the voucher distribution, rather than an investigation of him.
Nevertheless, the disclosure that the rabbi collected fees for filling out applications on behalf of low-income families who then received vouchers without an interview, and the perception of a City Hall reward for communities that have given Giuliani their political and financial support, have caused a backlash in some minority communities.
"There is a clear indication that there were special accommodations made by the administration," said Councilman Adolfo Carrion, whose Bronx district is 70 percent Latino. "People are very angry, and they see favoritism. There is a certain level of greediness here at other people’s expense."
A spokeswoman for the Jewish Child Care Association also cried foul. "We all need to look at the system that allows this terribly unfair situation to happen," said Jane Barowitz. "All people who need day care for their children should have equal access."
But insisting that Orthodox communities still are shortchanged, Rabbi Balkany stands by his efforts.
"I offer no defense or apology because none is necessary," he said. "The system is absolutely fair. Over 90 percent of the money is still going to other communities. If someone comes in and eats a full dinner with steak and side dishes, does the person say, ‘You didn’t give me dessert?’"
Rabbi Balkany said the fees he charged were to cover the administrative expenses by his yeshiva staff and that he charged day care providers, and not the families, for the service.
"ìThese were institutions where the parents spoke only Yiddish and they needed help," he said. Face-to-face interviews were not required, he said, because the families already had qualified but were placed on a waiting list.
Under the administration of Mayor David Dinkins, said the rabbi, the vouchers were distributed overwhelmingly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The Giuliani administration, he said, has not taken vouchers away from those areas but has increased the number available and given most of the new slots to other communities.
"In 1997 additional money was made available from the state," said Weiner of the ACS. "We decided to use the money to clean out the waiting list, and everyone on that list received day care."
The city awarded a total of 14,224 vouchers in fiscal year 1999, said Weiner. According to figures published in the Daily News, applicants in Borough Park received more than 2,600 vouchers, far more than the entire Bronx (562) and Manhattan (484) combined. Other heavily Jewish neighborhoods that received a large share of vouchers include Williamsburg, Midwood and Crown Heights.
Williamsburg Councilman Kenneth Fisher said Jewish communities should not be blamed for aggressively seeking the vouchers since the alternative, city-contracted day care centers, do not meet the religious needs of Orthodox families.
"A center like the Williamsburg Head Start is not equipped to handle chasidic children," said Fisher. "The milk and cookies aren’t kosher, and there is a host of other issues implemented when you are dealing with a faith-based community. The vouchers give more choice to parents. That’s what the premise of the program is."
Last week a minority police group, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, called on the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, Loretta Lynch, to take over the city’s investigation. The group claimed the probe would be subjection to "coercion" from City Hall.
"Either they don’t want to find something or they aren’t allowed to find something," Eric Adams, a co-founder of the group, said of the Department of Investigation. Adams said day care programs are important to crime reduction efforts.
The voucher controversy comes on the heels of another ethnically charged investigation involving housing construction in Williamsburg. The Brooklyn district attorney and federal officials are probing whether political favors led to the forced resignation of a building inspector who questioned the standards of sites built by chasidim, and whether the inspector’s departure played a role in a fatal accident in November at one of those sites.
Although no charges have been filed, the two investigations taken together could present a political problem for Giuliani, who ran for office on a platform promising one standard for the entire city, suggesting that his predecessor, Dinkins, favored the interests of African Americans.
"Given that the mayor always talks about not giving people special breaks and playing by the rules, this seems inconsistent with the values that heís generally espoused," said John Mollenkopf, a professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. "That might lead some people to think some parts of the city government are not living up to what the mayor has set forth."
The situation poses a challenge for Jewish groups who work to find common ground and promote interaction with other communities, particularly Latinos, the city’s fastest growing ethnic segment and one likely to seize a larger share of power when term limits reshape the city government in 2001.
"We are working behind the scenes with a variety of organizations and communities to deal with the sensitivity surrounding this matter," said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
The Senate campaign of Giuliani’s likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has yet to make the investigations an issue, perhaps fearing a backlash among Jewish voters.
At a press conference two weeks ago, Clinton campaign manager Bill DeBlasio, when asked about the investigations, said only that "there should be an equity in the distribution of day care vouchers everywhere, particularly given the kind of need in this city … If it turns out there wasn’t equity, that becomes an issue, but let’s not prejudge."
Rabbi Balkany said he was confident the status quo would remain. "I don’t think there is any need for a change in the system," he said.
But Weiner said Scoppetta, the ACS commissioner, was looking at new ideas.
"What we did in the past was fair and equitable because we used a waiting list that already existed," she said. "But we are considering alternative plans for the future."