By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org
Representatives of a traffic-congested Hollywood neighborhood are expressing new fears regarding the Ben Gamla middle-high public charter school complex, now under construction, after discovering that ex-congressman Peter Deutsch, a top school official, is linked to the acquisition of additional nearby properties which they say could be for future expansion.
The residents say they have also learned that while the city and the Broward School Board have limited the school’s opening to about 600 students, the school board previously approved a plan that would have more than tripled enrollment.
“They have bought other properties,” said Nancy Fowler, secretary of the North Central Hollywood Civic Association. “They are planning to bring in more kids,” she added. “There is a huge discrepancy between 600 students and 2,150 students.”
“It’s going to happen,” said Helen Chervin, President of the United Neighbors of South/Central Hollywood, who accused the city and the school from doing little to protect the neighborhood. “We are damaged; this is a forgotten neighborhood.”
DEUTSCH ISN’T TALKING
Deutsch, the driving force behind the Ben Gamla public charter schools, did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did Alan Koslow, attorney for Ben Gamla.
Expected to open next month, the new school complex is one block south of Hollywood Boulevard, with limited access onto two-lane Van Buren Street from 26th and 28th avenues. During the school year, nearby streets are choked with morning and afternoon traffic as area workers and residents jockey with parents dropping off students at the existing 600-student Ben Gamla elementary school that fronts Hollywood Boulevard at the City Hall circle.
Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the neighborhood and has opposed Ben Gamla’s expansion plans from the start two years ago, remains concerned.
“It looks like they are amassing property for future expansion,” he said. An expansion to more than 2,000 students would bring “too much traffic. “It’s going to be overwhelming for the neighborhood….It will ruin the quality of life.”
Fowler’s civic association is part of a coalition of local homeowner groups and beleaguered residents opposed to Ben Gamla’s new three-story, 34,000 square foot school on property it acquired at 2648 Van Buren Street. The property, according to county records, lists title under “Van Buren Facility III LLC,” with Deutsch with the contact person.
Fowler said the various neighborhood and civic groups have heightened concerns after discovering that Ben Gamla has acquired or may be linked to other nearby properties along Van Buren Street.
The Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office website shows that three contiguous properties at 2718, 2726 and 2734 Van Buren Street, totaling 56,000 square feet, were acquired by various limited liability companies – Jackson Street Facility and 28th Ave Facility — all listing Deutsch as the contact person. The properties sold for a total of $975,000, nearly double their assigned “just market value,” in April, June and November of 2014.
The only property separating the Ben Gamla school construction site and the Deutsch-linked Van Buren Street properties is a 20,500 square-foot parcel at 2710 Van Buren Street that currently houses the Discovery Kids learning center. It was sold two months ago to DY&Z Investments LLC for $1.2 million, or double the parcel’s just market value. The registered agent for DY&Z, Yoram Ben Amram, could not be reached for comment.
There has been speculation that Ben Gamla may also be eyeing acquisition of a 29,013 square-foot property at 2750 Van Buren Street that’s owned by and housing the Unity Church of Hollywood. The property, with a just market value of about $1 million, is next to the three contiguous Van Buren Street properties that list Deutsch as a contact person.
‘OPEN’ TO A SALE
“We would be open to it [sale]…if they came in with a fair assessment value,” said Michael Rhodes, president of the board of Hollywood Unity, a non-denominational church, operating at its current location since 1965.
If Ben Gamla sought to purchase the church it would not be a surprise. “Before the school built, they approached us about sale of the church,” Rhodes said. “But they never came back, never approached us since then.”
The property transactions listing Deutsch as the contact occurred after December 2013, when the Hollywood Planning and Development Board approved Ben Gamla’s request for a zoning exception that allowed the school to build in the residential neighborhood. The city board limited the complex to 600 students, based on the size of the property and the proposed structure.
Public records show the land purchases also happened after the Broward School Board, in November 2013, approved Ben Gamla’s charter school applications for a maximum of 1050 middle school students (grades 6-8) and a maximum 1,100 high school students (grades 9-12) at the 2648 Van Buren Street location. The middle school was to open with 600 students and the high school with up to 550, according to the approved applications.
The school board authorized the Ben Gamla complex to open for the 2014-2015 school year. But at Ben Gamla’s request, the board later approved delaying the opening for one year until the upcoming 2015-2016 school year. Ben Gamla obtained a building permit last November, city officials said.
Last April, the School Board approved operating contracts with Ben Gamla stating that enrollment had to match the 600 students – 200 in the middle school and 400 in the high school – previously approved by the city of Hollywood. The contracts specify those numbers are the “minimum enrollment that will support the school’s operations at an adequate level under its approved budget.”
Broward Schools spokeswoman Nadine Drew said that should Ben Gamla want to expand beyond that it would have to seek fresh approval because the original application the board approved for as many as 2,150 students no longer applies. She said the school can come back to the board to seek an enrollment increases if it obtains more space.
Fowler, however, contends the earlier approvals have not been rescinded and that it appears as if Ben Gamla has plans to increase enrollment. She also accused the district of not being transparent regarding Ben Gamla’s Van Buren school project, noting difficulty in obtaining information regarding Ben Gamla’s applications for the new complex.
“You can’t trust that they will not go over the maximum; there is nothing binding them to 600,” Fowler said. “They have other property; they can come back at anytime. They are planning to bring in more kids.”