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Ex-U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch lives half-a-world away as millions flow to his Ben Gamla schools

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Former Congressman Peter Deutsch, founder of Ben Gamla schools

Former Congressman Peter Deutsch, founder of Ben Gamla schools

Peter Deutsch, the driving force behind South Florida’s controversial Ben Gamla charter schools, is a six-term former Democratic congressman with a unique status: he lives more than 6,000 miles away in Israel as an expatriate.

Even so, Deutsch’s Ben Gamla schools have racked up hefty public funding: more than $10 million for nearly 1,800 students last school year alone.

In Broward, where the English-Hebrew charter schools have stirred the most controversy, Ben Gamla raked in $7.2 million from the state for five charter schools that operate at two sites in Hollywood and Plantation. Those schools served more than 1,200 students.

A Ben Gamla school in the Kendall area of Miami-Dade received approximately $1.4 million from the state for 241 students last school year. Another Ben Gamla charter school in Palm Beach County received $1.7 million in state funds for 280 students.

Broward School officials, who approve and review the operations of charter schools, said Ben Gamla has garnered additional funding support.

On the state level, that includes $92,000 in prior capital funds for construction and maintenance, plus another $560,000 in similar funds expected this school year.  Ben Gamla has also received six grants from the federal Charter Schools program totaling $800,000 over the last four years.

Deutsch, who county records show still maintains a homestead on the Hollywood home that he and his wife, Lori, purchased in 1997, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He has said previously that he is not paid for his professional work on behalf of Ben Gamla.

BEN GAMLA CONTROVERSY

Deutsch’s plans for Ben Gamla stirred controversy over issues involving separation of church and state when he sought to establish its first charter school in Hollywood in 2007. The School Board, however, found no conflict and approved the school.

bengamlasignA few years later, Deutsch’s plans to build another school in Hallandale Beach hit a wall when neighborhood residents successfully opposed his push to get the city commission to approve the deal.

The latest flare up again involves neighbors. Ben Gamla wants a zoning exception from Hollywood to build a 600-student high school on Van Buren Street near City Hall that upset residents say is already choked with traffic from Ben Gamla’s existing, adjacent K-8 school.

Under the state’s current allocation of $6,800 per Broward student, those 600 new students would net an additional $4 million-a-year for Ben Gamla, which is partnering on the project with Miami-Dade’s Doral Academy.

Deutsch unintentionally fanned the flames this summer in comments to a reporter with the Israeli wire service JTA about Ben Gamla’s Hebrew language and Jewish culture studies. The news service reported that Deutsch said 80 percent of Ben Gamla’s $10 million collective budget serves Jewish communal purposes.

“To me, it is literally the best leverage that I’m aware of in Jewish communal stuff in the history of the Jewish people,” Deutsch said. “Jews need to be supportive of this endeavor.”

Broward activist Charlotte Greenbarg spotted the story and complained to the School Board about possible constitutional violations. School officials who reviewed the matter earlier this month found no violations of law, but Greenbarg remains unhappy.

“He’s running things from afar,” said Greenbarg. “He’s not here most of the time.”

Deutsch, who resides in a condo in a Tel Aviv suburb with a view of the Mediterranean Sea, is apparently the only former member of Congress now living abroad. Sharon Witiw, services manager for the 600-member, Washington-based U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, said the group’s database lists no members as living overseas. Deutsch is a member of the group, but he’s listed as living in Hollywood.

STILL AN AMERICAN CITIZEN

Deutsch previously told BrowardBulldog.org that he is still an American citizen and votes in U.S. elections.

Deutsch’s eight-year residency in Israel does not surprise a man who counted Deutsch as his friend for 25 years.

Broward lawyer and Democratic Party boss Mitchell Ceasar said that during two successful decades as a South Florida politician, Deutsch displayed a keener interest in Israel than any of his colleague.

“It is only mildly surprising (that Deutsch) lives the overwhelming majority (of time) in Israel,” said Ceasar. “I think he always had in the back of his mind to bring up his family” there. He added that Deutsch’s failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004 “accelerated that process.”

Deutsch represented Broward in the House from 1993-2005. Before that he was in the State House for a decade.

Deutsch didn’t run for public office again after losing a primary election in his bid to succeed Bob Graham in the Senate. In 2008, he tried to unseat Ceasar as Broward’s top Democrat, but lost by a 2-1 vote margin.

“He was sold a bill of goods by a political consultant,” said Ceasar. After the election, Ceasar said “he did comment to me that it was not the best thing to have done.” Ceasar added, “He is still my friend. We talk when I bump into him. But I don’t see him [often] because he’s primarily in Israel.”

Others asked about Deutsch, including his former protégé and successor Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, declined comment.

While Ceasar characterized Deutsch as “very tenacious and very smart,” he could offer no insight beyond his interest in Israel as to why Deutsch created Ben Gamla charter schools.

Deutsch supported public funding for charter schools in literature put out by his Senate campaign in 2004, saying it would “provide parents and students with important educational options.”

ISRAELI NEWS STORY

The Israeli wire service story gives some additional background. Deutsch told JTA’s reporter that he moved to Israel to be a part of the historic journey of Jewish people back to the Holy Land.

Deutsch, who attended the elite Horace Mann School in New York and graduated from Swarthmore College and Yale Law School, predicted a flourishing environment for Judaism in Israel, but a bleak one for American Jewry, according to the JTA story.

Deutsch believes “most American Jews today view their Jewish background much as he did when he was younger, and with the same dispassion as Americans of Greek or Polish or Italian extraction might their ancestral origins, as little more than a footnote to their ancestry,” the story said.

“The Ben Gamla charter schools are Deutsch’s effort to change that. He wants to give Jewish kids who otherwise would attend public school an opportunity to be in a Jewish environment and develop a Jewish identify – at taxpayer expense,” the story said.

“As public schools, the Ben Gamlas cannot teach religion, but the schools have a Jewish flavor. The Hebrew curriculum includes Israel education and Jewish history…Some 85 percent of the students are Jewish. Supplementary after-school religious programs take place onsite or nearby.”

The JTA story reported that Deutsch has declined Israeli citizenship, lives on investment income, and serves on the board of the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Corporation, based in Illinois.

Deutsch earned more than $132,000 in total compensation from Great Lakes in 2011, according to Forbes. He also reported owning 79,300 shares in the company, Forbes said.

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Latest comments

  • “Broward School Board concludes there’s no religious instruction at Ben Gamla Charter School- “Activists Mud Sling in Desperate Frenzy” That should have been the headline of the story.

    So shame on Peter Deutsch for his personal, financial and political success. Shame on him for opening A+ schools that operate on a fraction of the budget of a public school. Shame on him for being on a corporate board. Shame on him for having an apartment with a nice view. Shame on him for still being a Jew.

    I guess personal failure, lack of exceptionalism and identity, publicly embarrassing oneself and compulsive hand ringing are the new example to emulate.

    No wonder our children are failing.

  • I am shocked that the Broward County Schoolboard would rather violate the constitution than tell an influential voting block that this is just wrong. That voting block is actually one of the most educated in legal matters and should know better.

  • 1) Hello? Did William Gjebre pass or fail journalism 101? JTA lists as its address “JTA · 24 West 30th St. · 4th Floor · New York, NY 10001 · USA “. New York, Israel? Or is it USA, Israel? Their address is found clearly on their daily email news sheet. Why didn’t William get the location correct? Why did he call JTA “the Israeli wire service JTA”? Sorry, Billy, but if you can’t get this one easy fact correct, why should I believe any other fact (or rather allegation) in your story?

    2) The impression I get from the whole article is that since William Gjebre couldn’t smear Peter Deutch based on the facts of the charter school system, he thought he could smear Peter Deutch by questioning his national affinity.

    3) The only thing that has been more thoroughly investigated than whether the Ben Gamla system is violating church/state issues was Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewisky. PUH-LEEZ! Enough already. The only thing Jewish about Ben Gamla schools is that they teach Hebrew language and Jewish history. Both of those topics are taught in countless public colleges and public high schools across the US every single day and no one gives a hoot. There is no religious instruction at all at Ben Gamla. There is no Bible, Talmud, prayer, etc instruction. None. Zero. A whole number less than one.

    In the past, the Broward School Board has thoroughly investigated any curriculum or ideology impropriety at the Ben Gamla schools and found none. If so, then what is the problem if parents want to send their child(ren) to this school? If parents can choose a school for their child(ren) that focuses on fashion, the arts, aerotechnology, et al, then why can’t parents choose a school for their child(ren) that teaches Hebrew language and Jewish history?

  • Public schools have been teaching Latin for decades and yet no one “investigates” whether or not they are teaching Catholicism despite the fact that Latin is the language of the Catholic liturgy and holy books.

    So why the excessive scrutiny for the Hebrew language school??

  • > Regarding your article in the Herald, my question is “and your
    > point is”? I am not a proponent of charter schools period. They all
    > receive taxpayer’s money and are not held to the same standards as
    > public schools. Have you written regarding the taxpayer dollars that
    > go to other charter schools? I do not understand the point you are
    > making regarding Deutsch’s residence. To my knowledge there are no
    > requirements for a business owner to live in the district or state of
    > his business. Perhaps there should be but as far as I know, there is
    > no such requirement. If there was a point to your story, I missed it.

  • The issue isn’t whether other schools teach languages, or what language is taught at Ben Gamla.

    The issue arose when Peter Deutsch himself said, “…80 percent of Ben Gamla’s $10 million collective budget serves Jewish communal purposes…To me, it is literally the best leverage that I’m aware of in Jewish communal stuff in the history of the Jewish people.” “Jews need to be supportive of this endeavor.”

    He obviously believes that this being done at Ben Gamla. If what he said isn’t enough to get the interest of anyone who claims to support the Establishment Clause, then up is down and down is up. I can’t wait until an extremist group starts creating charter schools teaching a language of hatred and murder. Then we’ll see who objects to what. Which is why the Clause was enacted in the first place.

    He never did respond to the School Board’s inquiry. Instead, the head of the school’s board of directors said that Deutsch has no authority to speak for the school. I thought another only in Broward moment, but maybe it does go farther, considering all of the schools he operates and the amount of money that comes in.

    And as a footnote, if so many people think charter schools are taking students from regular public schools (they are obviously) why aren’t they just as opposed to this one? Just asking.

  • “And as a footnote, if so many people think charter schools are taking students from regular public schools (they are obviously) why aren’t they just as opposed to this one?”

    Because Ben Gamla Charter School is one of the great ones in Florida.. Top academics and fiscally responsible. The smear campaign by the Bulldog is terribly sad. And shame on the Miami Herald for regurgitating it wholesale.

    It is pathetic how selfish and desperate is the behavior of some of the opposition. Hatred and perhaps self hatred that goes way beyond any of the “surface” issues. Obvious and Shamless.

  • “serves on the board of the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Corporation, based in Illinois.” and makes $130,000 doing this from Israel?
    Sounds like the ultimate no-show job.
    The other thing he does really well is get these schools in trouble by being too candid in his interviews from Israel. These schools agenda is very clear, they want to segregate themselves. That’s fine if they do it with their own money, just don’t ask the rest of us to pay for your desired racial purity.

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