Peter Deutsch, the driving force behind South Florida’s controversial Ben Gamla charter schools, is a six-term former Democratic congressman with a unique status: He lives more than 6,000 miles away in Israel as an expatriate.
Even so, Deutsch’s Ben Gamla schools have racked up hefty public funding — more than $10 million for nearly 1,800 students last school year alone.
In Broward, where the English-Hebrew charter schools have stirred the most controversy, Ben Gamla raked in $7.2 million from the state for five charter schools that operate at two sites, in Hollywood and Plantation. Those schools served more than 1,200 students.
A Ben Gamla school in the Kendall area of Miami-Dade received approximately $1.4 million from the state for 241 students last school year. Another Ben Gamla charter school in Palm Beach County received $1.7 million in state funds for 280 students.
Broward school officials, who approve and review the operations of charter schools, said Ben Gamla has garnered additional funding support.
On the state level, that includes $92,000 in prior capital funds for construction and maintenance, plus another $560,000 in similar funds expected this school year. Ben Gamla has also received six grants from the Federal Charter Schools Program totaling $800,000 over the past four years.
Deutsch, who county records show still maintains a homestead exemption for the Hollywood home that he and his wife, Lori, purchased in 1997, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He has said previously that he is not paid for his professional work on behalf of Ben Gamla.
Deutsch’s plans for Ben Gamla stirred controversy over issues involving separation of church and state when he sought to establish its first charter school in Hollywood in 2007. The School Board, however, found no conflict and approved the school.
A few years later, Deutsch’s plans to build another school in Hallandale Beach hit a wall when neighborhood residents successfully opposed his push to get the city commission to approve the deal.
The latest flare-up again involves neighbors. Ben Gamla wants a zoning exception from Hollywood to build a 600-student high school on Van Buren Street near City Hall that upset residents say is already choked with traffic from Ben Gamla’s existing, adjacent K-8 school.
Under the state’s current allocation of $6,800 per Broward student, those 600 new students would net an additional $4 million-a-year for Ben Gamla, which is partnering on the project with Miami-Dade’s Doral Academy.
Deutsch unintentionally fanned the flames this summer in comments to a reporter with the Israeli wire service JTA about Ben Gamla’s Hebrew language and Jewish culture studies. The news service reported that Deutsch said 80 percent of Ben Gamla’s $10 million collective budget serves Jewish communal purposes.
“To me, it is literally the best leverage that I’m aware of in Jewish communal stuff in the history of the Jewish people,” Deutsch said. “Jews need to be supportive of this endeavor.”
Broward activist Charlotte Greenbarg spotted the story and complained to the school board about possible constitutional violations. School officials who reviewed the matter earlier this month found no violations of law, but Greenbarg remains unhappy.