A Broward civic activist has urged the School Board to re-examine whether the publicly funded Ben Gamla charter schools are violating the Constitutional separation of church and state mandate.
In response, a top district official has asked for a review of the matter.
Charlotte Greenbarg, a Hollywood resident, contacted board members after reading a July 21 article in an Israeli newspaper about school founder and former Democratic Congressman Peter Deutsch and his endeavors to create Ben Gamla schools in South Florida.
In her Aug. 10 email, Greenbarg cited this line from the article: “Deutsch is unabashed about using public money to support what he describes as Jewish identity building. Out of Ben Gamla’s collective budget of $10 million a year, Deutsch says 80 percent serves Jewish communal purposes.”
“This needs to be re-examined quickly,” Greenbarg said.
“People can have any opinion they want,” said Deutsch, adding the School Board carefully vetted the issue in 2007 before approving Ben Gamla for a K-8 charter school on Hollywood Boulevard. “We are careful not to teach religion. It’s illegal to teach religion.”
The controversy was renewed as the Ben Gamla charter school group faces new neighborhood and community opposition to its proposal to build a 1,050-student middle and senior high nearby on Van Buren Street, east of I-95 near City Hall.
SPECIAL EXEMPTION NEEDED
The school needs a special exemption from Hollywood to construct the four-story school building, a joint effort with the existing Doral Preparatory Academy in Miami-Dade. The School Board must also approve it.
Following Greenbarg’s complaint, the office of Broward School Board chair, Laurie Rich Levinson, responded saying her e-mail and the article about Deutsch were forwarded to the district’s Charter School Department “for review and response.” Levinson could not be reached for comment.
The story that appeared in The Times of Israel was written by JTA, a Jewish wire service. It describes Deutsch as an “expatriate” who has lived in Israel the last eight years. It describes Deutsch as an Orthodox Jew who believes that most American Jews “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 view their ancestral origins; as little more than a footnote to their identity.
“The Ben Gamla charter schools are Deutsch’s effort to change that,” the story says. “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.”
Asked about the story in the Israeli newspaper, Deutsch said his quotes were accurate but he could not attest to the complete accuracy of the story without reviewing it. He added that he had not made a complaint about any part of the story.
“The school complies with every aspect of separation of church and state,” said Deutsch. “The school is obsessive with compliance with separation of church and state. The process is 100 percent transparent.”
Ben Gamla schools provide some instructions in the Hebrew language and studies in Jewish history and the state of Israel, Deutsch said. The result, Deutsch said, is a “communal benefit.”
The JTA story in the Israeli newspaper stated that about 85 percent of Ben Gamla students are Jewish. Deutsch does not know the exact figure, but said the majority of students are Jewish.
Other ethnic groups also attend, Deutsch said. Many of the students are from the middle and lower income families, he added.
The School Board’s approval in 2007 of the K-8 school at 2620 Hollywood Boulevard made Ben Gamla eligible to receive public funding from the state in an amount equal to that received for each student by a public school. Since then Ben Gamla has opened three other schools – one more in Broward and one each in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. A 40-student Ben Gamla School in Pinellas County closed in June.
Greenbarg, a well-known activist, is president of the Hollywood Council of Civic Associations, representing 15 associations throughout the city. She told board members, “ When this school came before the Board…Peter Deutsch promised it would be focusing on the Hebrew language, not religion, which would be a violation of the Constitution. Apparently that’s not what has happened as the article…illustrates.”
In an interview, Greenbarg said Deutsch appears “unconcerned that he was using public funds for religious purposes. The problem is that’s unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court ruled you can’t do that.”
If the “purpose of the charter school is to have a Jewish identity, then don’t use public funds,”
Greenbarg said her group supports three homeowner groups in opposing the proposal for the Doral-Ben Gamla Preparatory Academy on Van Buren Street, adjacent to the existing Hollywood Ben Gamla K-8 school.
The group, she said, opposes the project because the traffic is already difficult in the area of the proposed school. “It’s a terribly congested place. It’s going to be bad for the community.”
Deutsch said Ben Gamla representatives have met with area residents and generally found backing for the school.
Opposition to the proposal, however, appears to be spreading.
In another development, a 10-unit condominium next to the proposed school, has joined opposition to the school.
In an August 8 letter to the city, Guy Chartier, president of the 10-unit Coronet Grove Condo Association that is next door to the proposed school, said it would increase traffic and parking woes in the area.
William Gjebre can be reached at [email protected]