By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Former Democratic U.S. Congressman Peter Deutsch is pushing to build another Ben Gamla charter school, this time in Hollywood over the opposition of residents in a working-class neighborhood congested by morning and afternoon traffic.
Deutsch’s plan is for a combined middle and high school on Van Buren Street across from an existing Ben Gamla K-8 school at 2620 Hollywood Boulevard.
It is reminiscent of Deutsch’s unsuccessful attempt two years ago to build an elementary and middle charter school facility in Hallandale Beach. Opposition by nearby residents scuttled that plan, forcing the sale of the property to the city for a park.
In Hollywood, officials with the English-Hebrew charter school are seeking a zoning exception from the city to build a $5 million four-story, 49,000-square-foot school for 1,050 students on Van Buren Street between 26th and 28th avenues.
While officials of three neighborhood organizations representing nearly 150 homeowners are speaking out in opposition to the school because of traffic and other concerns, Deutsch says it will be an asset to the city.
“I think this is going to be an incredible addition to the city and the neighborhood,” said Deutsch, the founder of the publicly funded Ben Gamla Charter School network. A majority of the students will come from Hollywood, and the school will reach out to the neighborhood for students, he said.
Neighboring residents aren’t convinced.
“It does not fit here,” said Helen Chervin, secretary/treasurer of United Neighbors Civic Association of South Hollywood, comprised of more than 50 homeowners. “They want to build a big elephant by my house.”
“The traffic would be a serious setback for our community,” added Andre Brown, the group’s president. “We are talking about a huge safety issue.”
A decision by the city is expected in about three months.
Residents say their concerns are rooted in experience.
Chervin said the opening of the 600-student Ben Gamla K-8 school in 2007 created traffic problems for residents trying to drive out of the neighborhood to go to work. The area is just south of Hollywood Boulevard and west of City Hall.
A second Ben Gamla school next door would make traffic “impossible,” said Shirley Stealey, secretary/treasurer of the Highland Gardens Civic Association, which represents 35 to 40 nearby homeowners. Most of the students, she said, will come from outside the immediate neighborhood.
While Ben Gamla officials have hired a traffic consultant to come up with suggestions to ease congestion, Stealey said “no matter what they do traffic will be blocked” due to narrow neighborhood streets and the heavy traffic flow from the two schools.
Ken Crawford, president of the nearby Parkside Civic Association, expressed similar fears about too much neighborhood traffic.
“They say the school will benefit the neighborhood, but that never happens,” Crawford said.
The neighborhood is getting support from the area’s city commissioner, Peter Hernandez. “It’s very concerning to me. I can tell you people from the neighborhood are not happy with what they see and hear,’’ he said.
Hernandez will hold a community meeting to discuss the Ben Gamla proposal at City Hall on Aug. 28 at 7 p.m.
The proposed site for the school is on about 1.5 acres in the 2600 block of Van Buren St. that are now home to a 14-unit residential complex and two single-family houses The land is owned by 2648 Van Buren LLC and has an assessed value of approximately $840,000, according to state and county records.
A Van Buren LLC official, Richard D. Shan, confirmed his company has an agreement to sell the property contingent on the city’s approval of Deutsch’s plan to build the school. Shan, also an official with Shanco Construction, declined to disclose the sale price, but said, “They made us an offer and we accepted.”
Ben Gamla needs a zoning exception as well as a variance from land-use requirements that would allow the school to be built with less of a setback from the road than is usually required. This is necessary because the property is slightly undersized for the proposed plan.
Still, the fear of car-choked streets is the deal’s biggest roadblock. To remove it, Deutsch has hired traffic engineers to provide proposals to ease congestion, including an increase in the number of parent drop-off areas at both schools. He said the school would pay for police officers to direct traffic at key times.
“There are proposals to dramatically improve traffic flow for both schools,” he said.
Deutsch said the new school would be named the Doral-Ben Gamla Preparatory Academy and would reflect the teaching philosophies of the existing school as well as Miami-Dade’s well-regarded Doral Academy, which allows students to obtain college credits.
Doral Academy will partner with Ben Gamla at the proposed school in Hollywood; both have filed applications for approval by the Broward School Board.
Doral, which serves 2,800 students in grades six through 12, is managed by Academica, a large for profit charter school management company headquartered at 6340 Sunset Drive in South Miami.
Deutsch is the managing member for two similarly named limited liability corporations – Van Buren Facility 2 and Van Buren Facility – that use the same principal address.
Deutsch said he uses the Academica address because under state law, corporations must have a physical location to receive legal service, and he does not have a regular business office.
He added, however, that Ben Gamla pays Academica to manage its four schools. He said no decision has been made about the company providing management services for the new Doral-Ben Gamla school
According to city records, Deutsch and other Ben Gamla representatives, including former Hollywood City Attorney Alan Koslow, met with Mayor Peter Bober in City Hall on April 30 to discuss the school project.
“Mayor Bober is familiar with the issues…he’s supportive of the concept,” said Deutsch.
Bober did not return several phone messages seeking comment. Koslow could not be reached for comment.
The city’s Technical Advisory Committee reviewed Ben Gala’s preliminary plans in June. Ben Gamla was asked to provide more information, including how to ease traffic flow in the area.
Once the committee is satisfied it will forward the school’s plans to the Planning and Development Board. The planning board is expected to hold a hearing in November.
Under the city code, the planning board would render the final decision. There are several avenues of appeal, however.
The School Board must also approve the school.
Ben Gamla charter schools are free to students because of state funding directed through local school boards. They receive the same amount of funding per student as that received by regular public schools.
Ben Gamla stirred public debate about the separation of church and state before its opening. Ultimately, the School Board allowed the school to open after determining that its dual-language curriculum complied with state requirements.
Ben Gamla supporters have said the schools are nonreligious settings that offer an alternative to privately run Hebrew day schools where tuition can run well over $10,000 a year.