In Hollywood, fight over charter high school gets noisy

Every morning when school is in session, traffic along Hollywood Boulevard and the surrounding streets slows to a crawl as parents drop their children at the Ben Gamla Charter School, which houses kindergarteners through eighth-graders.

Nearby homeowners say the traffic is unbearable. And it’s going to get a whole lot worse, they insist, if a proposal to build a high school across the street serving 1,050 students is approved by the city and the school board.

Proponents say a little traffic congestion at the beginning and end of the school day is typical at any campus, and don’t understand the big deal.

Opponents and supporters of the school will be able to vent Thursday night when Hollywood hosts a community meeting on the school proposal at 6 p.m..

It could get loud. Hundreds of people attended a similar meeting in September. Ben Gamla has divided this community, and not just because of traffic concerns. Some have suggested that the Hebrew-language charter school — a privately run campus using public money — violates the separation of church and state.

Ben Gamla says it does nothing of the kind, because the school does not teach religion

Damon Diggs, who works security for a medical office building with parking on Van Buren Street, says he often sees Ben Gamla-bound cars cutting through alleys and blocking driveways. The school is bracketed by Van Buren and Hollywood Boulevard.

“This happens every morning,” he said as he pointed at the cars lining up on the mainly residential street. “There’s too many cars.”

At about 7:30 a.m., cars begin to line up on Van Buren, waiting to enter the carpool lane. Some parents choose to park on swales or across the street at City Hall. An assistant coach stands in the street with a stop sign allowing the children to safely cross to the school at 2620 Hollywood Blvd.

On Monday, Samuel Franco parked his car City Hall, perched 2-year-old Nicolas on his shoulders and walked his older son, also named Samuel, to Ben Gamla.

“I try to minimize the traffic on the streets,” Franco said, adding it takes him far less time to walk him in versus driving. “That’s the price you pay for good education.”

Some nearby neighbors, including Lisa Colliflower, are “livid” that the school would even consider expanding.

“This is not the place for it,” she said, as she walked down South 26th Avenue Monday morning.

The last meeting, hosted by Commissioner Peter Hernandez, attracted so many people that the gathering had to move outside, and organizers used a bull horn to communicate. Things got heated.

Hernandez said the issue is traffic, not the school.

“It’s a traffic nightmare,” he said.

Former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, a founder of the school, said he wasn’t even formally invited to the meeting.

“Traffic will be better,” he told to the raucous crowd..

The debate over Ben Gamla’s Hebrew-language curriculum was stirred after a Hollywood activist, Charlotte Greenbarg, saw comments made by Deutsch in an Israeli newspaper. According to the Broward Bulldog, the paper said Deutsch wanted Jewish children to be able to attend school in a Jewish environment at taxpayer expense.

Greenbarg sent a letter to the school board calling for a review. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Broward County Public Schools confirmed that the issue was looked into and the school is in compliance.

“We have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for any religious instruction at Gamla,” said Debra Klein, chairwoman of the National Ben Gamla Foundation, in a letter. The name of the school is taken from an Israeli high priest, Yehoshua Been Gamla.

Within the walls of the K-through-8 school, the more than 650 students learn Hebrew, language arts, math and other core subjects.

Principal Sharon Miller said the school’s A grade from the state attests to its academic performance.

Parents say they couldn’t be happier with the school and having a high school would add continuity.

“At the end of the day, it’s about education and what’s best for the children,” said Mike Gerson, who has two children in the school.

The plan calls for a new high school — to be called the Doral-Ben Gamla High School — to be built on 1.5 acre property that’s now the site of a residential building and two single-family homes. The school would partner with Doral Preparatory Academy, which school officials say has already created a successful high school in Doral.

City spokesman Raelin Storey said the city staff has not yet made a recommendation and plans on using the comments from Thursday’s meeting to help shape a decision. The city is bracing for a large crowd, and has already issued about 50 tickets to each side, limiting the number of people per side in the chambers. Others will be able to watch on a monitor from the lobby or the library.

“We know there are a lot of strong opinions on both sides,” Storey said.