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.
“He’s running things from afar,” Greenbarg said. “He’s not here most of the time.”
Deutsch, who resides in a condo in a Tel Aviv suburb with a view of the Mediterranean Sea, is apparently the only former member of Congress now living abroad. Sharon Witiw, services manager for the 600-member, Washington-based U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, said the group’s database lists no members as living overseas. Deutsch is a member of the group, but he’s listed as living in Hollywood.
STILL A U.S. CITIZEN
Deutsch previously told BrowardBulldog.org that he is still an American citizen and votes in U.S. elections.
Deutsch’s eight-year residency in Israel does not surprise a man who counted Deutsch as his friend for 25 years.
Broward lawyer and Democratic Party boss Mitchell Ceasar said that during two successful decades as a South Florida politician, Deutsch displayed a keener interest in Israel than any of his colleagues.
“It is only mildly surprising [that Deutsch] lives the overwhelming majority [of time] in Israel,” Ceasar said. “I think he always had in the back of his mind to bring up his family” there. He added that Deutsch’s failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004 “accelerated that process.”
Deutsch represented Broward in the House from 1993 to 2005. Before that, he was in the state House for a decade.
Deutsch didn’t run for public office again after losing a primary election in his bid to succeed Bob Graham in the Senate.
In 2008, he tried to unseat Ceasar as Broward’s top Democrat but lost by a 2-1 vote margin.
“He was sold a bill of goods by a political consultant,” Ceasar said. After the election, Ceasar said “he did comment to me that it was not the best thing to have done.”
Ceasar added, “He is still my friend. We talk when I bump into him. But I don’t see him [often] because he’s primarily in Israel.”
Others who were asked about Deutsch, including his former protégé and successor Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, declined comment.
While Ceasar characterized Deutsch as “very tenacious and very smart,” he could offer no insight beyond his interest in Israel as to why Deutsch created Ben Gamla charter schools.
Deutsch supported public funding for charter schools in literature put out by his Senate campaign in 2004, saying it would “provide parents and students with important educational options.”
ISRAELI NEWS STORY
The Israeli wire-service story gives some additional background. Deutsch told JTA’s reporter that he moved to Israel to be a part of the historic journey of Jewish people back to the Holy Land.
Deutsch, who attended the elite Horace Mann School in New York and graduated from Swarthmore College and Yale Law School, predicted a flourishing environment for Judaism in Israel, but a bleak one for American Jewry, according to the JTA story.
Deutsch believes “most American Jews today 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 their ancestral origins, as little more than a footnote to their ancestry,” the story said.
“The Ben Gamla charter schools are Deutsch’s effort to change that. 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,” the story said.
“As public schools, the Ben Gamlas cannot teach religion, but the schools have a Jewish flavor. The Hebrew curriculum includes Israeli education and Jewish history … Some 85 percent of the students are Jewish. Supplementary after-school religious programs take place on-site or nearby.”
The JTA story reported that Deutsch has declined Israeli citizenship, lives on investment income and serves on the board of the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Corp., based in Illinois. Deutsch earned more than $132,000 in total compensation from Great Lakes in 2011, according to Forbes. He also reported owning 79,300 shares in the company, Forbes said.