By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Residents of a quiet Hallandale Beach neighborhood are battling to prevent a 450-student, Kindergarten-8th grade charter school from opening in their midst.
More than 100 residents have signed a petition urging city commissioners to reject a special permit to allow the school to open at the Beth Tefilah Synagogue/Hallandale Jewish Center, 416 N.E. Eighth Ave.
The existing 22,484-square foot, two-story building on 1.9 acres has primarily operated as a synagogue in the past. While there was never a school on the site, the Ben Gamla Charter School, whose chief proponents include former U.S. Congressman Peter Deutsch, hope to open another Ben Gamla Charter School on the site.
The property was acquired for $500,000 several years ago by the Hallandale School LLC, a group supporting expansion of Ben Gamla. Ben Gamla already has an elementary school and middle school in Hollywood, as well as a K-8 school in Sunrise. Charter schools receive state funding equal to that of public schools – currently around $6,800 per student.
According to a spokesperson for Broward Schools, 576 children are enrolled at the two Hollywood Ben Gamla charter schools. Another 196 attend the Sunrise school. The schools collectively receive about $5 million a year in public money, based on the state’s formula meant to support charter schools.
The Hallandale Beach fray is yet another South Florida struggle between nearby residents who want to protect the character of their surroundings from private and charter schools seeking to open or expand in their neighborhood.
A four-year standoff
The Hallandale standoff has been going on for nearly four years, with the matter being deferred several times just as it was about to be decided by the city commission. The most recent delayed occurred recently when representatives of the school and city agreed to pull the item from the Hallandale City Commission’s May 18 agenda amid continuing negotiations.
Mayor Joy Cooper said she is working on a resolution on the matter, but declined to say what that might be. Several residents said they were hopeful the city is looking to buy the property for city uses rather than allowing the school to open.
“This is the wrong location for the school,” said Cynthia Cabrera, one of those spearheading the effort against the school. “The neighborhood is not able to handle the additional traffic.”
The traffic flow of the many cars bringing students along narrow two-lane streets would alter its quiet character, said Etty Sims, who lives in the neighborhood. Sims sits on the city’s Education Advisory Committee, a board that opposes the school’s request.
Cabrera and Sims both said the city has a diverse population and that the Hebrew-oriented school would only serve a small number of students in the city, and that most pupils would come from outside the city.
Referring to Deutsch, who represented Broward County in Congress for 1993 to 2005, Cabrera said, “This is about one guy who wants his way.”
Said Sims, “It’s a good deal for him, but it’s not a good deal for the neighborhood.”
Cabrera said most of those speaking in support of the school at community meetings were not from the immediate neighborhood.
Deutsch disagreed with those assessments.
School a benefit to community?
The school would “absolutely be a benefit to the community,” he said, adding that at community meetings more speakers spoke in support of the school than against it.
Deutsch said a city-hired consultant, whose fee in accordance with city law was paid by the school, said new traffic to be generated by the school was within the city’s criteria for the project.
Deutsch said the school has pledged that students living in the city who want to attend the school would have preference over others seeking admission. He said he expected many of the school’s student would live within city limits, including the neighborhood.
“A well run charter school,” Deutsch said, “has the ability to transform a neighborhood.”
In recent months, expansion of private and charter schools has riled some neighborhoods. In Miami-Dade County, Coral Gables residents objected to the expansion of Somerset Academy charter school from 110 students to 735 students in space leased at University Baptist Church. Palmetto Bay residents objected to plans by the Palmer Trinity private school to expand from 600 students to 900-1,400 students
Ben Gamla stirred public debate about the separation of church and state before it opened in Hollywood in August, 2007. Critics voiced concerns about public money being spent to promote the teaching of religion.
But the Broward School Board ultimately allowed the school to open, saying its dual-language curriculum complied with state requirements.
According to published reports, Ben Gamla’s backers have said the schools have nonreligious settings that are an alternative to the privately run Hebrew day schools whose tuition often runs well over $10,000. Ben Gamla charter schools are free to students because of the state funding directed through local school boards. The schools teach Hebrew in a “cultural context,” there is no praying in the schools and students can’t be required to wear yarmulkes, according to past published reports.
While charter schools are open to all students, school officials have estimated that 85 percent of the students attending Ben Gamla schools are Jewish.
A drawn out battle
The battle over the Hallandale Ben Gamla charter school has been long and “exhausting” on the neighborhood, Cabrera said. She referred to the many times the school has changed it plans.
The school’s first zoning application in June, 2007 called for 200 students in grades K-8. It won Planning and Zoning Board approval but was withdrawn by the school before it got to the city commission for a final vote.
The school’s second application in January, 2009 requested a K-12 charter school for 800 students; it was reduced to 600 students after several community meetings. The city’s Educational Advisory Committee recommended against the request; the application was withdrawn by the school prior to a vote by the Planning and Zoning Board on May 26, 2010.
The current application was filed in June 2010, requesting permission to have a charter school for 600 students in grades K-12. After a community meeting, the school reduced the request to 450 students in grades K-8.
In March, 2011, the Hallandale zoning board recommended approval of the Ben Gamla charter school but made 18 recommendations that had to be met by the school. The recommendations have been sent to the City Commission.
They include requirements for additional landscaping and compliance with safety and building codes, the establishment and hours of operation and a provision that the existing synagogue assembly may not operate at the same time as the school. The board also recommended the school only be allowed to enroll up to 300 students for the first two years and increase to 450 afterwards if all conditions of the school approval are met.
In addition, the board said the city manager should be given the authority to seek the commission’s approval to modify or revoke the school’s operating permit if he determines the school adversely affects health, safety, public welfare or property in the neighborhood.
Unhappy nearby residents remain wary.
“It’s been a constant drain on the neighborhood,” Cabrera said. “This has been going on since 2007.”
She said residents have been outgunned by the school’s lawyers as the matter has dragged on. “This is a middle class neighborhood of working people; we can’t afford to hire an attorney,” Cabrera said. “We have to be constantly vigilant.”