By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
A charter school company run by ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch stands to make a $700,000 profit if Hallandale Beach commissioners accept a staff recommendation Wednesday to buy a 1.9 acre residential site where it once planned to build a controversial 450-student, K-8 school.
If commissioners approve, Hallandale LLC, which Deutsch formed in May 2008, will have more than doubled its real estate investment in just three years.
The city administration, after meeting with representatives from the Hallandale School LLC, recommended acquisition of the property at 416 NE Eighth Ave. for $1.2 million – a sale price that is higher than its current assessed value of about $900,000, but less than two city-obtained estimates for the property.
The school group bought the property in May 2008 for $500,000 from Beth Tefilah Synagogue/Hallandale Jewish Center, a once thriving congregation with considerably fewer members today.
The acquisition would end a determined 4-year battle by area residents to stop placement of the school led by Deutsch, a south Broward Democrat who served in Congress from 1993 to 2005.
Deutsch, who identified himself as managing partner for Hallandale School LLC, hoped to put a Ben Gamla charter school on the Hallandale site. But with strident neighborhood opposition, Deutsch said, “it seemed obvious that the city did not want a school at this location. It wasn’t going to happen. We learned a lesson.”
Deutsch, who has established other Ben Gamla Hebrew-English charter schools in Hollywood, Plantation and Sunrise, called the proposed acquisition of the property by the city a “win-win” for both sides. “We created a compromise.”
Hallandale Beach would acquire the property for an as yet unspecified community use and the school advocates would be able to move on and pursue other options, including possibly another location in Hallandale, Deutsch added.
The purchase proposal was added to Wednesday’s agenda by Community Redevelopment Agency director Alvin B. Jackson Jr. It asks the commission authorize the city manager to purchase the property, execute all related agreements and establish funding to pay for the purchase. CRA funds would apparently be used to make the acquisition.
Mayor Joy Cooper told Broward Bulldog she was pleased because, in part, the deal represents “a unique opportunity to address” the matter and the needs of the area. She declined further comment until the commission meeting.
City Manager Mark Antonio declined to comment on details of the proposal. He said, however, Hallandale School LLC bought the property at a lower price than actual value because the synagogue would still be able to use the property at no cost. He said two appraisals showing the property value above $1.2 million will be revealed at the commission meeting.
Antonio and Cooper said use of the property will ultimately be determined by the city commission.
“This would end the battle,” said Cynthia Cabrera, one of the leaders of the neighborhood opposition to the school which needed special permission from the city to operate a facility in the neighborhood. Residents claimed the streets were too narrow and the traffic from the school would overwhelm the area.
“This would satisfy everybody and benefit the neighborhood and the Hallandale community” if the property would be developed for much needed park use, Cabrera said.
She expressed some concern about the $1.2 million price tag. Commissioners would “take heat if they overpay,” Cabrera said, adding, however, “It might be worth the premium price.”
Etty Sims, another neighborhood school opponent, said, “I like the idea of the city purchasing the property and I would like to see [an adjacent] park expanded.”
Several years ago, the city bought paid a considerable price for a lot just north of the synagogue that was developed into small Sunrise Park at 800 NE Fifth St., Cabrera said. The synagogue property, she said, is much larger. Broward County property records indicate the city purchase the site in December 2007, for $450,000.
Koslow says no “windfall”
Deutsch and his lawyer, former Hollywood City attorney Alan Koslow, said the school had offers higher than $1.2 million for the property at 416 NE Eighth Ave. which includes a 22,484-square-foot,two-story building. “Our price was reasonable; it’s not a windfall,” said Koslow, who has been attorney for several Ben Gamla charter school initiatives.
Broward County property records show that Hallandale School LLC purchased the synagogue property in May, 2008 for $500,000. For tax years 2009, 2010, and 2011, the “just value” of the property was listed on county property records at $916,220. The 2010 tax bill was $27,515; and the 2009 bill was $27,139.
Ben Gamla charter schools stirred public debate about the separation of church and state before the group opened a school in Hollywood in August, 2007. The schools, which teach Hebrew in a cultural context and have mostly Jewish students, have provided a less expensive alternate to the privately operated Hebrew day schools whose tuition often run well over $10,000.
The Ben Gamla schools are free to students because they receive state funds through Florida’s charter school law; the funding per student is almost equal to that for a public school student, about $6,800.
Ben Gamla officials began their effort to put a school in the Hallandale Beach residential neighborhood in June 2007, requesting permission for a 200-student K-8 charter school. The application was approved by Planning and Zoning Board but the school withdrew the request before the matter went to the city commission.
The school made a second application to the Planning and Zoning Board in January, 2009 for an 800-student, K-12 school. After community meetings, it agreed to reduce the school to 600 students. The school withdrew its applications just prior to a vote by the Planning and Zoning Board on May 26, 2010.
The school’s third application was filed in June, 2010, requesting permission for a K-12 school for 600 students. After community meetings it agreed to reduce the size of the school to 450 students in grades K-8. In March, 2011, the Planning and Zoning Board approved the revised application.
The matter was slated for a final vote by the Hallandale Beach city commission on May 18, 2011, but the school and the city agreed to withdraw the item after the parties agreed to resolve the dispute.
Once the agreement is executed, the synagogue and Jewish Center would eventually have to vacate. Deutsch said he expected the existing tenant to leave by the end of the year if not sooner. Representatives for Hallandale LLC said efforts will be made to help the synagogue and Jewish Center relocate.
Reporter William Gjebre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org