By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward County School officials have expressed concern that taxpayer-funded Ben Gamla Charter Schools may be violating a state law that requires charter schools to be nonsectarian in their programs and operations.
The issue arose after a local civic activist complained last month about recent comments made by Ben Gamla’s founder, former Democratic Congressman Peter Deutsch, to an Israeli news service regarding the Hebrew curriculum at the Ben Gamla schools. Charlotte Greenbarg urged the School Board to re-examine whether the schools breached the Constitutional separation between government and religion.
Last week, in an email to Greenbarg, the director of the School Board’s Charter Schools Management/Support Department said an inquiry had begun.
“The district shares your concern,” said Jody Perry. “ To that end, we have requested a full explanation of the comments attributed to Mr. Deutsch.”
“Of the facts stated within the body of the article,” Perry wrote, “the reporter notes that the program at Ben Gamla schools focus on Hebrew curriculum, which includes the history of Israel, Jewish history and Hebrew as a language.
School officials later broadened their inquiry by asking Ben Gamla’s governing board to provide “a breakdown of public funds…the property and inventory, capital outlay” and other public grants received “to access the appropriate use of public funds” by the group’s two charter schools in Broward.
“The state statute that governs charter schools in Florida specifically addresses the nonsectarian nature of public education in the country. Pursuant to Section 1002.33(9)(a), Florida Statutes, ‘A charter school shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and operations.’”
Perry could not be reached for additional comment. The district’s public information office, in response to a request for additional information, stated past reviews of Ben Gamla schools “found the curriculum to be nonsectarian.”
“I’m very happy to see that the district is following up,” Greenbarg said. “I eagerly anticipate Mr. Deutsch’s reply.”
The article was written by JTA, a Jewish wire service, and appeared in The Times of Israel newspaper in mid-July.
Deutsch could not be reached for comment on the school district’s concern and request for explanation.
But when the controversy arose last month, Deutsch stated the Ben Gamla schools do not violate the separation of church and state mandate. “We are careful not to teach religion. It’s illegal to teach religion.”
Asked then about the JTA story in the Israeli newspaper, Deutsch told Browardbulldog.org his quotes were accurate but that he could not attest to the complete accuracy of the story without reviewing it. He added, however, that he had not made a complaint about any part of the story.
In her request for a review of the Ben Gamla schools, Greenbarg referred to the JTA story stating: “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.”
The article said of Deutsch, “He wants to give Jewish kids who otherwise would attend public school an opportunity to be in a Jewish environment and develop a Jewish identity.”
The review by the Broward school district would involve two Ben Gamla schools, one on Hollywood Boulevard across from Hollywood city hall and the other in Sunrise. There are two other Ben Gamla schools, in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
The controversy flared as Ben Gamla teamed with Miami-Dade’s highly-regarded Doral Preparatory Academy to seek Hollywood’s approval of a special exemption to build a four-story 1,050-student middle-senior high school on Van Buren Street, behind the existing K-8 school. It will also seek school board approval for a charter for the facility.
BIG TURNOUT AT CITY HALL
Four neighborhood associations representing area homeowners are fighting the proposal for another school, citing the likelihood of increased traffic congestion.
The matter was discussed informally at a community meeting last Wednesday night at city hall. Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the district where the school is to be built, sponsored the gathering. The meeting was moved outside after more than 250 people unexpectedly showed up.
Most of those in attendance were the parents and children who attend Ben Gamla schools.
“We want to give our kids a better future,” said Mike Gerson, who has a fourth grader and a seventh grader at Ben Gamla. Chantale Ragnauth, 31, whose son is in the third grade, said, “It feels like family; it’s an amazing school.”
“People drive through my yard,” yelled a neighborhood resident.
Commissioner Hernandez cited the concerns of his constituents.
“We are not against the school…but there is a traffic nightmare…there are traffic issues that need to be worked out,” Hernandez said. He added that he has tried to get school officials to help solve traffic congestion created by the existing K-8, but got no response.
Deutsch, who attended the meeting, said solutions now proposed by the school will improve traffic “dramatically.”
The meeting ended on a bitter note.
“I love the fact that you came out,” Hernandez told the Ben Gamla supporters, drawing jeers when he said “most of you don’t live here (in the immediate neighborhood).”
“The good thing is he (Hernandez) is only one of seven votes,” said Deutsch, drawing cheers from his backers.
William Gjebre can be reached at [email protected]