‘Concern’ about Ben Gamla curriculum sparks inquiry by Broward Schools

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hollywood's Ben Gamla charter school

Hollywood’s Ben Gamla charter school

Broward County School officials have expressed concern that taxpayer-funded Ben Gamla Charter Schools may be violating a state law that requires charter schools to be nonsectarian in their programs and operations.

The issue arose after a local civic activist complained last month about recent comments made by Ben Gamla’s founder, former Democratic Congressman Peter Deutsch, to an Israeli news service regarding the Hebrew curriculum at the Ben Gamla schools. Charlotte Greenbarg urged the School Board to re-examine whether the schools breached the Constitutional separation between government and religion.

Last week, in an email to Greenbarg, the director of the School Board’s Charter Schools Management/Support Department said an inquiry had begun.

“The district shares your concern,” said Jody Perry. “ To that end, we have requested a full explanation of the comments attributed to Mr. Deutsch.”

“Of the facts stated within the body of the article,” Perry wrote, “the reporter notes that the program at Ben Gamla schools focus on Hebrew curriculum, which includes the history of Israel, Jewish history and Hebrew as a language.

School officials later broadened their inquiry by asking Ben Gamla’s governing board to provide “a breakdown of public funds…the property and inventory, capital outlay” and other public grants received “to access the appropriate use of public funds” by the group’s two charter schools in Broward.

NONSECTARIAN STATUTE

“The state statute that governs charter schools in Florida specifically addresses the nonsectarian nature of public education in the country. Pursuant to Section 1002.33(9)(a), Florida Statutes, ‘A charter school shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and operations.’”

Perry could not be reached for additional comment. The district’s public information office, in response to a request for additional information, stated past reviews of Ben Gamla schools “found the curriculum to be nonsectarian.”

“I’m very happy to see that the district is following up,” Greenbarg said. “I eagerly anticipate Mr. Deutsch’s reply.”

The article was written by JTA, a Jewish wire service, and appeared in The Times of Israel newspaper in mid-July.

Deutsch could not be reached for comment on the school district’s concern and request for explanation.

But when the controversy arose last month, Deutsch stated the Ben Gamla schools do not violate the separation of church and state mandate. “We are careful not to teach religion. It’s illegal to teach religion.”

Asked then about the JTA story in the Israeli newspaper, Deutsch told Browardbulldog.org his quotes were accurate but that he could not attest to the complete accuracy of the story without reviewing it. He added, however, that he had not made a complaint about any part of the story.

In her request for a review of the Ben Gamla schools, Greenbarg referred to the JTA story stating: “Deutsch is unabashed about using public money to support what he describes as Jewish identity building. Out of Ben Gamla’s collective budget of $10 million a year, Deutsch says 80 percent serves Jewish communal purposes.”

The article said of Deutsch, “He wants to give Jewish kids who otherwise would attend public school an opportunity to be in a Jewish environment and develop a Jewish identity.”

Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez

Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez

The review by the Broward school district would involve two Ben Gamla schools, one on Hollywood Boulevard across from Hollywood city hall and the other in Sunrise. There are two other Ben Gamla schools, in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

The controversy flared as Ben Gamla teamed with Miami-Dade’s highly-regarded Doral Preparatory Academy to seek Hollywood’s approval of a special exemption to build a four-story 1,050-student middle-senior high school on Van Buren Street, behind the existing K-8 school. It will also seek school board approval for a charter for the facility.

BIG TURNOUT AT CITY HALL

Four neighborhood associations representing area homeowners are fighting the proposal for another school, citing the likelihood of increased traffic congestion.

The matter was discussed informally at a community meeting last Wednesday night at city hall. Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the district where the school is to be built, sponsored the gathering. The meeting was moved outside after more than 250 people unexpectedly showed up.

Most of those in attendance were the parents and children who attend Ben Gamla schools.

“We want to give our kids a better future,” said Mike Gerson, who has a fourth grader and a seventh grader at Ben Gamla. Chantale Ragnauth, 31, whose son is in the third grade, said, “It feels like family; it’s an amazing school.”

“People drive through my yard,” yelled a neighborhood resident.

Commissioner Hernandez cited the concerns of his constituents.

“We are not against the school…but there is a traffic nightmare…there are traffic issues that need to be worked out,” Hernandez said. He added that he has tried to get school officials to help solve traffic congestion created by the existing K-8, but got no response.

Deutsch, who attended the meeting, said solutions now proposed by the school will improve traffic “dramatically.”

The meeting ended on a bitter note.

“I love the fact that you came out,” Hernandez told the Ben Gamla supporters, drawing jeers when he said “most of you don’t live here (in the immediate neighborhood).”

“The good thing is he (Hernandez) is only one of seven votes,” said Deutsch, drawing cheers from his backers.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

ATI career school company implodes amid fraud claims; $3.7 million whistleblower settlement

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org oie_2941128RKljF32J (1)

A for-profit career school operator with once-bustling campuses in Broward and Miami-Dade counties agreed this month to pay $3.7 million to the government to settle whistleblower fraud claims.

ATI Enterprises, which operated as ATI Career Training Center, agreed to the payout while denying accusations it had recruited students at homeless shelters, strip clubs and among criminals, then forged paperwork to make them eligible for thousands of dollars in federal tuition grants and loans.

The settlement, announced by the Justice Department last week, comes as crisis managers liquidate the Texas-based company by selling off assets and transferring or referring students to other schools, according to interim CEO Michael F. Gries.

At its height a few years ago, privately held ATI boasted 24 campuses in five states with more than 3,000 employees and 16,000 students. It was valued at more than $400 million.

ATI’s South Florida training schools in Fort Lauderdale, Oakland Park, the Doral area west of Miami International Airport, and Miami Gardens closed at the end of last year, Gries said.

Whistleblower Dulce Ramirez-Damon

Whistleblower Dulce Ramirez-Damon

The settlement resolved a pair of federal whistleblower complaints, including one filed in federal court by Dulce Ramirez-Damon, ATI’s former assistant director of education in Fort Lauderdale.

Ramirez-Damon’s False Claims Act complaint was filed in secret in July 2011. It alleged that ATI had engaged in a “systematic and nationwide fraudulent practice of forging documents and records to create an appearance of student eligibility in order to receive federal funds.

A similar whistleblower action was filed in federal court in northern Texas in 2009. Both suits have now been made public.

Private individuals bring false claim lawsuits in the name of the United States. They share in any recovery, in this case up to 25 percent plus attorney fees.

After investigating, the government decided to intervene on Aug. 7 in Ramirez-Damon’s case for the purposes of settlement, court records say.

The Department of Justice’s press release said ATI’s payment would resolve allegations it “falsely certified compliance with federal student aid programs’ eligibility requirements and submitted claims for ineligible students.”

ATI also allegedly misrepresented its job placement statistics to authorities in Texas in order to maintain its licensing and accreditation, the press release said.

‘MISUSE OF FUNDS’

Federal prosecutors in Miami, Washington, and Texas investigated, along with the Department of Education’s Inspector General.

“Federal financial aid is there to help students attain their dreams and goals, and misuse of these funds to increase corporate profits is unacceptable,” Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a press release. “We are committed to ensuring that federal student aid is used for the benefit of students.”

Neither Ferrer’s office, nor Ramirez-Damon’s Miami lawyer, Bjorg Eikeland, responded to requests for comment.

Former ATI CEO and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin

Former ATI CEO and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin

ATI has changed hands a couple of times in recent years, with the current owner being Texas-based Ancora Holdings.

But according to Gries, “all of these allegations” engulfing ATI occurred under the leadership of former ATI Chief Executive and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin, a resident of Delray Beach.

Benjamin, who now runs Salt Lake City-based Stone Mountain Investments, did not return a phone message left with his office. Here’s a link to a You Tube video he made about ATI when he was CEO.

Benjamin worked at ATI from 2005 to 2011. While there, he contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a bipartisan array of Congressional candidates, according to federal election records.

Florida recipients of Benjamin’s largess include: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston; Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar; ex-Reps. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale and Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton; and Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican and ex-governor and presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

The whistleblower lawsuit alleges that within a month of Ramirez-Damon’s hiring in October 2009 it became apparent to her that ATI was engaged in active Pell Grant fraud. She said she notified her superiors, but that company management chose “to look the other way.”

Ramirez-Damon claimed she was abruptly demoted in April 2011 and transferred off the Fort Lauderdale campus at 2890 NW 62nd Street to a job as an instructor in Miami. The reason: “to keep her silent” and deny her access to school records, the lawsuit said.

She is no longer employed by ATI.

Pell Grants provide government aid to students from low-income families. At ATI, students could take courses to train them for jobs in automotive, health care, business, information technology and other fields.

According to the whistleblower suit, ATI falsified documents to enroll “as many students as possible” in programs with tuitions ranging from $13,741 to $46,744 per program. One former ATI employee is quoted as saying “the ATI culture…was to recruit anyone with a pulse.”

The numbers could add up quickly.

‘A LUCRATIVE SCAM’

“With a student mass of over 750 (in Fort Lauderdale) alone, and 18,000 country wide, federal subsidy of tuition is a very lucrative scam for ATI,” the suit said.

To find students, the suit said, ATI admission representatives targeted “the ‘down and out’ at homeless shelters, strip clubs and poor neighborhoods.” The “bait” to entice them to sign up was the promise of financial aid and low-interest loans. ATI distributed flyers promising lucrative salaries and guarantees of job placement.

The alleged fraud by ATI was sweeping: forged admission exams, forged proof of education, the acceptance of students without screening for criminal history, forged attendance records and falsified grades – all done to make it appear that federal standards were being met so the money would continue to flow.

In the lawsuit, Ramirez-Damon contended, “of a student body of 750 enrolled students” in Fort Lauderdale “at least 150-200 students have a violent or drug-related background.” She provided the names of more than a dozen such students in her complaint.

“It is common practice at ATI when a student is missing attendance, that employees check (the) Florida Department of Corrections website to see if the student has become incarcerated,” said the lawsuit.

ATI would also “re-circulate” poorly achieving students who faced dismissal, letting them know that they could transfer into another career training program. “This way the old grades no longer count and the student is again eligible to receive financial aid,” the suit says.

Some students who failed would fail again because they did not have the academic ability or background to take the courses they were in, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result, the students incurred more debt without graduating. ATI, on the other hand, has made more money,” the suit said.

The government’s press release noted that $2 million of ATI’s settlement payout would be used to refund student loans involving lawsuits brought by individual students against ATI.

The press release did not say how much taxpayers lost on government loans to ATI students.

Hollywood neighbors oppose ex-U.S. Rep. Deutsch’s plan for another Ben Gamla school

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org  

Rendering of proposed Ben Gamla charter School in Hollywood

Rendering of proposed Ben Gamla charter School in Hollywood

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.

Ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch

Ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch

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.

Project site location is just south and west of Hollywood City Hall

Project site location is just south and west of Hollywood City Hall

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.

More bullying alleged against fired cheerleading coach; Coral Glades High did nothing

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org 

Coral Glades High School

Three years before cheerleading coach Melissa Prochilo was fired for ignoring bullying in her program at a Parkland high school, faculty members and parents at a nearby Coral Springs high school where she used to work leveled the same complaint against her.

And just like at Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School, the principal and his staff at Coral Glades High were accused of doing nothing.

Coral Glades Principal Michael Ramirez “overlooked all of the complaints” against Prochilo in 2009, according to an October 2 letter sent to Broward School Board members by one of Prochilo’s former co-workers and obtained by Browardbulldog.org.

The School Board fired Prochilo, the head cheerleading coach at Stoneman Douglas, earlier this month.  She continues to work at the school as a substitute teacher.

The author of the letter is Carmela Ferreira, a former cheerleading coach with Prochilo at Coral Glades. She stated that she wrote to support Prochilo’s firing “100 percent.”

Her story from 2009 is almost identical to what got Prochilo in hot water at Stoneman Douglas, where parents complained that school staff did nothing about their 2011 complaints.

Ferreira’s letter says that shortly after Prochilo arrived at Coral Glades “many parent complaints started to arise…the JV (junior varsity) coach at the time also had many complaints.” The allegations included “many valid complaints such as bullying being allowed at practice, varsity girls making fun of JV girls, girls quitting because of the constant bullying.”

“Rules were not being followed properly; girls had to run their own practice because she (Prochilo) was not showing up to them.  I recall having to bench a Varsity girl because she was making fun of the entire JV team at practice in front of both teams.  Melissa did not agree with the benching because she liked the girl and her mother,” the letter stated.

Ferreira’s letter was similar to one received by Browardbulldog.org earlier this year after it first reported about problems in the Stoneman Douglas cheerleading program. That e-mail, whose author did not want to be publicly named, stated:

“You may want to investigate when this coach Melissa Prochilo was at Coral Glades.  The same accusations were presented to the principal Ramirez and the school board. It was all pushed under the rug. We had girls that were bullied so bad they quit the team…”

The email is bolstered by a second email sent by another Coral Glades staff member, who asked not to be named, and others to Principal Ramirez on Oct. 27, 2009 when the incidents at the school were occurring.

That e-mail contains 40 different complaints against Prochilo, compiled from parents and staff. They include:

·     Prochilo “allowed a girl to stunt with glasses—then injury occurred.”

·     “Shows favoritism—and at this level it causes nothing more than animosity amongst girls and bullying.”

·      “Practice out of control – JV and Varsity fighting, parents complaining.”

·      “Girls allowed to curse and disrupt practices.”

·      “Other coach witness their practice and its just crazy…way out of control with everything (playing around, language, laziness, etc).”

Ferreira told the School Board that Principal Ramirez simply brushed off the complaints “because he really did not want to deal with it.”

Ramirez was later promoted and today serves as one of the School Board’s 11 directors of School Performance and Accountability.

Ramirez and Porchilo did not respond to requests for comment.

Porchilo was fired after a parade of tearful moms who complained to the School Board that their daughters were being bullied in cheerleading and that neither Prochilo nor the school administration did anything to stop it. The mothers also accused Porchilo’s program of widespread violations of School Board policies, including requiring parents to pay more than a thousand dollars to participate.

Porchilo had her supporters. Before the Board meeting, fliers were circulated in the community calling the coach “fair, knowledgeable and kindhearted.” And during the meeting, cheerleaders dressed in the Stoneman Douglas school colors of burgundy and black, chanted outside the meeting room, “L-O-V-E. We love Coach Melissa, can’t you see.”

“It’s sad what’s being presented about this coach,” Cindy Beach, former vice president of the cheerleading booster club, told The Miami Herald. “I’ve never seen her yell at a kid.”

The Board, however, decided to follow Superintendent Robert Runcie’s recommendation and not have Porchilo continue cheerleading at the school.

“It’s a travesty,” Prochilo told the Sun-Sentinel. “I love all these children. I’m really disappointed for the girls.”

Prochilo also had supporters at Coral Glades who fought back with her, according to former cheerleading coach Ferreria’s letter earlier this month to the Board.

“It got very ugly and I decided to resign as the stress was not worth the fight and I could no longer support a coach that refused to follow the rules that had been in place for years,” Ferreria wrote.

Pay to play allegations fuel probe of Broward HS cheerleader program; Parents, staff quizzed

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School cheerleaders Photo: Jordan Feinberg

Disputes over pay to play, bullying, fraud and safety have erupted around the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School cheerleading program and have led to an investigation by Broward County Schools.

In the past few weeks, Special Investigative Unit agents have interviewed parents and Stoneman Douglas staff regarding the program and booster club, including a complaint the club has broken county rules by collecting tens of thousands of dollars from parents as a requirement to be a cheerleader at the Parkland high school.

The investigation came after complaints that Principal Washington Collado repeatedly ignored problems in the program, parents say.  At Stoneman Douglas, Collado gave the parent-run booster club much of the responsibility of outfitting the team and arranging travel to tournaments apparently in violation of school system

When one parent complained twice, Collado told her she was “disruptive” and banned her indefinitely from the campus.

“We found there is no point talking to that principal. He will do nothing,” said Tammy Tornari, a Parkland mother who was the first parent to complain about the Eagles Cheerleading Booster Club.

She questioned a demand by the club for more than $2,000 in order for her two children to participate in cheerleading. The school has about 30 cheerleaders.

Collado declined comment on the investigation and referred all questions to Tracy Clark, the school system’s chief information officer.

“We are aware of the allegations at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland,” Clark said in an e-mail to Broward Bulldog. “We are currently investigating the allegations. As such, we cannot comment on investigations that are in progress. Pending the completion of the investigation, the District will take appropriate action. We take all allegations of bullying, fraud and mishandling of funds seriously.”

State-certified law enforcement officers run the Special Investigative Unit.

Eagles Cheerleading Booster Club President Joy Kelley said that in response to the complaints and investigation, the organization has been disbanded, with the financial records and left over money turned over to the school.

“Everything was done properly and for the girls,” Kelly said. “They will see that every dime is account for. Everybody was working for the girls except for a few women. “

When asked about the specific allegations involving the cheerleading program, Kelly said, “The truth will come out when the investigation is completed. We are cooperating. Nothing was done wrong. They talk about bullying.  The bullying was done by those three or four women.”

PAY TO PLAY INVESTIGATED

Complaints started in the late fall shortly after parents began getting bombarded with invoices from the booster club. When parents questioned the bills of more than $1,000-a-student to participate in cheerleading, they say the management of the booster club rebuffed them.

Tornari said the costs didn’t add up.

“They said the costs were for uniforms, radios, a mat,” she said. “They couldn’t really even tell us anything beyond that. They couldn’t break down the costs and tell us what everything cost.”

Another outraged parent was Joann Gavin of Parkland, a former club official.

When the booster club was formed early in the school year, Gavin was asked to be assistant treasurer because one was required by club rules.

Gavin said despite the assistant treasurer title, the women who controlled the organization would hold meetings without inviting her and other members, effectively pushing them into the background of the group.

She added she never even met most of the other officers until she started to complain about the program. However, as assistant treasurer, Gavin had access to the booster club’s bank statements and cancelled checks

Gavin was shocked when she reviewed the club’s financial records.  She said she found that the club had raised roughly $60,000 from invoicing parents.

The cancelled checks showed the club had hired two outside assistant coaches for $600-a-month.  One coach was paid an additional $3,000 for “choreography and music,” according to the notation on the check.  Other individuals were paid for t-shirts and bags.  There was a check for $375 for bows paid to an individual.

“There was definitely something wrong.  When were any of these expenses voted on by the club?” Gavin said.

With the help of an attorney, parents found that allowing the booster club to collect and spend the money violated School Board policy. The school system’s policy is included in a Standard Practice Bulletin given annually to principals and others to ensure the millions of dollars it takes to run a school is handled properly.

Under the rules, the booster club must give all monies collected to the school for handling. The policy also bans requiring parents to pay, in part to ensure programs are open to students who may not have the money to participate.

The rulebook capitalizes the prohibition in the policy.  Booster clubs “May Not charge parents a fee for instructional material, equipment or supplies relating to the school program or activities,” states Policy I-101 VI.

PRINCIPAL CONFRONTED

Principal Washington Collado

Armed with information about the cheerleading program, Gavin met with the principal at least twice, first alone and then with others concerned about the booster program. Those who attended the meetings say the principal did nothing to change the program.

Gavin, meanwhile, received a registered letter banning her from the campus under a School Board policy designed to eliminate threats to students and staff.

Although she had two children in the school and there were no allegations she was dangerous, Collado’s open-ended ban forbid her from even entering the school’s front office. She has sued in Broward Circuit Court charging that Collado and the school system violated her constitutional rights to due process by not allowing any method to protest the ban, like a hearing.

Another parent, Kathy Silver, complained to coaches that her daughter had been bullied in the program.

Silver said she protested to cheerleading coaches that her daughter was continuously bullied. Silver and at least two other parents said girls were subjected to insults by coaches and other cheerleaders during performances.  The bullying allegedly continued via social networking sites on the Internet.

The School Board has a strong policy to fight bullying and requires that any written or oral complaint be investigated.

Silver said that did not happen. “No one would listen. No one did anything,” she said.

SAFETY CONCERNS CITED

Parents also cited safety issues with the cheerleading program.

Gavin said she knows of six students who have been injured in Stoneman Douglas cheerleading.

Julie Chaykin, a co-founder and vice president of the U. S. Cheerleading Association, has a daughter in Stoneman Douglas cheerleading.  On May 20, she e-mailed School Superintendent Robert Runcie and several other school system administrators that the program was rife with problems.

Her e-mail was prompted by Collado’s reappointment of Cheerleading Coach Melissa Prochilo. Chaykin wrote that she was astounded the coach was being allowed to run the program again despite numerous complaints and what she said were the “extremely dangerous” stunts forced upon students.

“After personally hearing and viewing several extremely dangerous and inappropriate situations…I was quite confident that once our administration became aware of the situation, that it would be impossible for Melissa Prochillo to remain on staff in any capacity, dealing with the Cheerleaders at our school. No knowledgeable coach would ever have an athlete attempt a level 4 skill without first safely perfecting the progression of skills preceding said level,” Chaykin wrote.

How long the investigation might take is not known. “I do not have a timeframe for the completion of the investigation,” Clark said.

On April 30, months after the first complaints, a notice was posted on the school’s web site reminding parents that the new season of cheerleading was starting again. The notice ended with a reminder that parents were to bring to the initial meeting “$150 cash or money order – NO EXCEPTIONS!!”

“He just doesn’t care about anything we said,” Gavin said referring to Collado.

Buddy Nevins can be reached at bnevins@browardbulldog.org

 

 

 

Payback time at the Broward School Board? Diversity activists accuse Chair Ann Murray

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org

Broward School Board Chair Ann Murray

Two public school activists say they lost their appointments to the Broward School Board’s Diversity Committee as payback for bringing attention to rundown conditions at Hallandale Beach High School.

Committee members Catherine Kim Owens and James Sparks told Broward Bulldog they were notified Thursday by School Board Chair Ann Murray that she had not reappointed them. In a brief letter, Murray informed each that their terms had “concluded” and thanked them for their service.

Hallandale High is in Murray’s district. “I assume this has to do with the fact that I was vocal” about poor conditions at the school, said Owens.

Murray said Monday that her decision not to reappoint Sparks and Owens, both residents in her district, was made to give others a chance to serve, and was “not a retaliation” for their outspokenness.

She noted that much has been done to  make repairs at Hallandale High, including the installation of a new air conditioning system. “There is only so much money; we are doing the best we can,” she said.

Committee members, who met Thursday, said Murray’s decision hurts the Diversity Committee’s ability to ensure students in Broward public schools have equal access to a quality education and proper facilities.

“This says to me if you say the wrong thing you won’t be here,” committee member Ernestine Price said at the meeting. “Even though you work hard you get slapped in the face.”

“Are they saying if we see something we should sweep it under the table?” said committee member Barbara Williamson. “If so, we should quit.”

Roland Foulkes, chair of the 30-member diversity committee, was annoyed when he echoed those sentiments. “I believe this is an example of the outcome when people do their jobs well,” he said.

POOR CONDITIONS AT HALLANDALE HIGH

Sparks was one of the community leaders who first brought attention to rundown conditions at the school in the 1990s through the community group Concerned Citizens for our Children. A lawsuit filed by Concerned Citizens led to an agreement in 2000 that community members and the School Board would monitor conditions and make improvements at Hallandale High and other schools.

Sparks spoke out publicly this year after a team of Diversity Committee members reported that dilapidated conditions still existed at the school. Owens was the team member who compiled the critical report, which drew the attention of Broward Bulldog and other local media days after a statewide grand jury blasted Broward school officials for mismanagement.

The district reacted by making upgrades to computers, fixing locker rooms, repairing ceilings and showers and taking other remedial measures.

ANNUAL APPOINTMENTS

Thursday’s meeting was the first session for those appointed or reappointed to one-year terms.

Each of Broward’s nine school board members, seven from districts and two at-large, selects three appointees. District board members must select appointees from their district, while at large members can select from the entire county. Three students also sit on the board.

All of the appointees are volunteers. A new chair will be named by committee members in January.

While dropping Owens and Sparks, Murray reappointed Shevrin Jones and named a new member, Daphne Henry. Murray has one more appointee to name. She said Monday that she will likely choose a Hispanic, as that group is not well represented on the committee.

Four other vacancies belong to board members from other districts.

Frustrated diversity committee members discussed a motion to urge some other board member to appoint Sparks and Owens, but decided the request would be futile because eligible board members already had used their available selections.

MESSAGE TO TOE THE LINE

Hallandale High wasn’t the only rift between Murray and members of the Diversity Committee.

According to Owens, Murray objected to committee members making unannounced trips to public schools.

“We felt we could not do that,” said Owens, who added that committee members did not forewarn anyone of their visits because they wanted to see school conditions as they actually existed, not doctored to make a more favorable impression.

Sparks added, “[Murray] doesn’t want to appoint anyone who doesn’t think like her.”

At last week’s meeting, Foulkes noted that pointing out problems is what committee members are “supposed to do.” But Murray, he said, “was uncomfortable” with the spotlight that was thrown on Hallandale Beach High.

“They were hard working and dedicated, especially in Hallandale,” Foulkes said of Owens and Sparks.

Last March, Foulkes called for Murray’s resignation after news reports described her use of a racial slur when she was a school district transportation supervisor in 2007. The disclosure was another “embarrassment” for her around the time of problems at Hallandale Beach High, Foulkes added. Hallandale High is a predominantly black school.

Murray apologized for the remark but declined to step down.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

 

With bad news as a backdrop, negotiations resume between Broward and its school teachers

 By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org

Broward Teachers Union President Pat Santeramo

Smarting from criticism, the Broward public schools administration and the teachers union have returned to the bargaining table to hammer out a contract and salvage $52 million in state and federal money.

“We’ll see if we can get on the same page,” Pat Santeramo, Broward Teachers Union President said. “We are willing to cooperate.”

Hostilities among the negotiating parties have mounted for years while both sides have sustained blows that raised doubts about competence.

Talks resumed last week after being on hold since late April. In May, the district had declared an impasse in negotiations.

Agreements between the union and the district on the federal and state funds “should have happened a long time ago,” community activist and watchdog Charlotte Greenbarg said. “This is a lot of money. Both sides have to realize there’s a financial emergency, due, in part, to self-inflicted wounds.”

A statewide grand jury in February criticized the management and operations of the School Board and administration. Meanwhile, the political website BrowardBeat.com reported last week that the BTU has agreed to let its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, review a $1.3 million drop in local union funds and assets. The declines, attributed to declining membership, had brought grumbles from BTU board members about their own management team.

The union hopes to smooth relations internally and with the school administration, while seeking to tap $31 million in federal “Race to the Top” incentive dollars awarded for teacher performance and another $21 million in state grants. The union and the district must agree on how that money will be apportioned.

That federal money “is a key component” in reopening talks because “it’s money for salaries,” Santeramo said. It is likely also the only source for new salary funds given the poor economy and the state’s cut in education funding during the past five years.

The union’s declining revenues, a history of bleak contract talks and the grab for outside money paint the backdrop to what’s now happening, although Santeramo said they were not directly related.

Santeramo said the drop in BTU funds stems from dues hikes imposed on local affiliates by the AFT. He said money to the state and national bodies went up without increases to local membership fees to cover the additional expenses.

He added there had been no misappropriation of BTU funds

“I told the AFT we have nothing to hide,” said Santeramo, adding the BTU has reduced staff salaries, including his own four field representatives were laid off.

According to district records, the BTU had 16,668 teachers and other members as of March 31. About 2,500 eligible workers have not joined the union or paid dues. According BrowardBeat.com, the union’s net assets dropped $1.3 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010 – from $5 million to $3.7 million amid declining membership.

Interim Superintendent Donnie Carter, who took over after Jim Notter’s June 30 retirement, did not respond to requests for comment.

Broward, the sixth largest school district in the nation, is behind Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the nation, in dealing with its teachers. Miami-Dade reached an agreement in May with the United Teachers of Dade on local Race to the Top performance pay – and teachers there are not facing layoffs. Palm Beach managed a $500 raise and voters approved an additional property tax for salaries for arts teachers.

In comparison, Broward teachers, who have been without a pay raise for three years, are faced with the prospect of about 1,800 layoffs. The teachers are among 2,400  employees targeted for layoff as part of the district’s effort to cut $171 million from its projected $2.9 billion budget for 2011-2012.

Broward’s application for federal Race to the Top performance pay is pending before the state; it has until Sept. 30 to reach agreement with the BTU on a plan that could bring $29.7 million in performance pay to teachers over the upcoming three years. The district received $6 million from the state for planning.

The state has earmarked an additional $21 million in grants to pay Broward teachers working at low performing school, for development of a merit evaluation plan that mirrors provisions of the Race to the Top and for classroom technology. The grants require union agreement.

Broward’s chances for completing agreements on the federal and state funding programs dimmed when the district declared an impasse in negotiations in May, especially because of the hostility between Santeramo and then superintendent Notter.

But with Notter’s retirement, the door reopened to talks.

Santeramo said he contacted school board members and interim superintendent Carter about working to get a deal on the labor contract that would include agreements on Race to the Top and the state grants.

Holding back on the Race to the Top agreement was a “bargaining chip” in order to get a new labor agreement, Santeramo said. The district, he added, now wants agreement on both to remain competitive with Miami-Dade and Palm Beach

At the resumption of bargaining last Thursday, newly formed bargaining teams for both sides reviewed the status of bargaining proposals, and agreed to narrow the issues in dispute at upcoming sessions, 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26 and 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 2.

Activist Greenbarg noted it will take a lot more than agreements on a labor contract and the federal and state funds to repair the district’s damaged image. But, she added,”it won’t hurt” if they reach accord.

 

 

Internal audit cites sloppy bid practices in Broward school construction division

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org

The Broward School Board in session

A new Broward public schools internal audit of the district’s troubled Facilities and Construction Management Division has found “areas of concern” in the bidding of contracts and says changes should be made.

The latest audit comes after a February statewide grand jury sharply criticized the district and the facilities division for a lack of oversight and handling of bids. The grand jury made 21 recommendations to correct problems.

The report by the district’s Office of the Chief Auditor, to be discussed at today’s Broward School Board meeting (Tuesday, Aug. 2), stems from one grand jury recommendation that the district’s auditor review the bidding process “to certify bids met minimums.”

“In our opinion, the F&CM Division has areas of concern in the bidding and bid opening process which should be addressed immediately to ensure that appropriate internal controls are enforced …,” says the report dated June 23.

Among concerns cited were failures to: attract a minimum of three qualified bidders for projects; exclude from bidding contractors who have exceeded their bonding limits; use a secured lock box system for receiving bids; and to prepare and publish “invitation to bid” documents.

The internal audit made seven recommendations, some of which have been already adopted by staff:

  • Strengthen bidding procedures to ensure compliance with construction procurement laws and regulations. The department should maintain lists of pre-qualified, certified contractors so there are no fewer than three bidders available in each category; document that qualified bidders received original bid information and any addendums; notify potential bidders which newspaper will carry printed bids. The audit reviewed four bid openings but, only one had a minimum of three pre-qualifiers. Three other bids were postponed or rejected. The audit also found that prospective bidders may fail to observe bids because of the district’s practice of alternating bids in the Sun Sentinel and The Miami Herald.
  • Improve the  monitoring of the approved vendor list by constant review to ascertain pre-qualified vendors and discontinue bid opening when it is determined there are fewer than the required three pre-qualified bidders. The report found instances where only one pre-qualified bidder existed or there may have been a weakness of the district’s monitoring system to reach and seek bids from firms pre-qualified for projects.
  • Utilize all available bid broadcast tools – in particular the district’s Internet bid management system, Demandstar, as an additional means to advertisement for bids to ensure that the largest number of prospective bidders to maximize market competition. The report found that the Demandstar system, used by contractors, was mainly being use to post addendum bid information.
  • Strengthen contract language to ensure that addendums are fully tracked in the district. The report found there was no requirement for contractors to notify the bid- printing companies of receipt of bid addendum information.
  • Establish a procedure for determining when proposers’ bids should not be opened if a contractor has exceeded state-established bonding limits. The report found several instances where the district had opened sealed bids from contractors who had exceeded their bond capacity.
  • Use a lock box to secure all bids and require two staff members be present to access the box. The report found the facilities department was not using a a lock box system for submission of bids and did not regularly time stamp bids, raising concerns about the integrity of the process.
  • Provide the “invitation to bidders” document as an internal step in all design/bid/build procedures. The report found that in three of four bids reviewed, the facilities division did not prepare, execute and publish “invitation of bid” documents, as required, and thus delaying the bid process.

City votes to pay $1.2 million for ex-U.S. Rep’s property without a plan for what to do with it

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog

Peter Deutsch

In a $1.2 million “bitter-sweet” land deal, Hallandale Beach City Commissioners has agreed to buy nearly 2 acres owned by former US Congressman Peter Deutsch and his partners to solve a community dispute.

The city has no immediate plans for the land, which will be paid for with tax dollars from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

A plan by Deutsch to build a Ben Gamla charter school on the land, 1.9 acres at 416 NE Eighth Ave., had become the target of neighborhood complaints and worries about traffic.

“I’m glad it is resolved,” said Deutsch, of the city commission decision reached Wednesday night. “It’s bitter-sweet. Obviously we wanted a school there. It was clear the city did not want a school at the site.”

Mired in a public dispute for years, school officials told the city in May they would put the property up for sale, according to City Manager Mark Antonio. The move marked an about-face for Deutsch’s group – in March the city’s zoning board had recommended approval if certain conditions were met.

“The school would have been too much” for the area to handle, Mayor Joy Cooper said.

The transaction with the city, however, gained extra attention because of the amount of money on the table.

Deutsch and his partners, Hallandale School LLC, will sell the property for $700,000 more than the $500,000 they paid for it in 2008. The former Broward County congressman, also the managing partner of Hallandale School LLC, downplayed how much money his group would make in the transaction.

Legal bills, architects’ fees and the cost of a traffic study, would leave about a $150,000 profit, Deutsch said. The company, which runs an elementary and middle school in Hollywood, as well as a k-8 school in Sunrise, will use the money to fund its business, he said.

Deutsch is the business’s public face. He declined Broward Bulldog’s request to identify other backers of Hallandale School LLC who put up the $500,000 to originally buy the property, saying it was a private company.

The property is assessed at about $900,000. But the city obtained two higher appraisals: L.B. Slater and Company, of Hollywood, pegged the market value at $1.85 million; Robert D. Miller, of Coral Springs, set the value at $1.425 million.

City Manager Mark Antonio

Antonio said the purchase price seemed reasonable compared to the city’s acquisition several years ago of 1/3 of an acre for a park just north of the site for $450,000.

Mike Butler, a resident who writes the blog ChangeHallandale.com, said the city has spent about $28 million over the last six or seven years buying land without a particular purpose.

The purchase comes as the city continues to use reserves to keep from running a deficit in its approximately $100 million budget, Butler said.

“I think the city already has enough real estate that it doesn’t know what to do,” Butler said.

Alvin Jackson, director of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), said the agency has the money for the school property in the CRA’s $6 million land acquisition allocation. The city commission also acts as the board overseeing the redevelopment agency.

The property, Jackson said, is within the redevelopment district. State law allows the city to collect property tax money in the district and target those dollars for development uses in that area, including recreational, street and utility improvements.

Jackson said no other project was sacrificed to buy the school property and that the dollars used already exist in a land acquisition account.

“I’m very much at peace,” Deutsch said, “with the decision” to sell to the city. He added the school would be looking at other available locations in the city for a school.

Although area residents opposed the project, there were few speakers at Wednesday’s meeting.

One of those, however, was Barbara Southwick. She told city commissioners while she was concerned about “the profiting from” the sale to the city, she nevertheless supported the acquisition. She said the northeast section is the only area of the city lacking “an indoor” facility.

The $1.2 million price could be reduced by $100,000 if the synagogue currently on the land vacates the property within six months after final execution of the contract between the city and Hallandale School LLC.

The $100,000, according to the agreement, would be used to pay the city rent if the synagogue is still occupying the property after the six month period – at a rate of about $5,800 per month, until the amount is exhausted if still occupied.

City and Hallandale School LLC officials, however, said the synagogue is expected to vacate within six months of finalization of the sale.

 

Hallandale to vote on $1.2 million Deutsch land deal; purchase would quell charter school foes

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org

Peter Deutsch

A charter school company run by ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch stands to make a $700,000 profit if Hallandale Beach commissioners accept a staff recommendation Wednesday to buy a 1.9 acre residential site where it once planned to build a controversial 450-student, K-8 school.

If commissioners approve, Hallandale LLC, which Deutsch formed in May 2008, will have more than doubled its real estate investment in just three years.

The city administration, after meeting with representatives from the Hallandale School LLC, recommended acquisition of the property at 416 NE Eighth Ave. for $1.2 million – a sale price that is higher than its current assessed value of about $900,000, but less than two city-obtained estimates for the property.

The school group bought the property in May 2008 for $500,000 from Beth Tefilah Synagogue/Hallandale Jewish Center, a once thriving congregation with considerably fewer members today.

The acquisition would end a determined 4-year battle by area residents to stop placement of the school led by Deutsch, a south Broward Democrat who served in Congress from 1993 to 2005.

Deutsch, who identified himself as managing partner for Hallandale School LLC, hoped to put a Ben Gamla charter school on the Hallandale site. But with strident neighborhood opposition, Deutsch said, “it seemed obvious that the city did not want a school at this location. It wasn’t going to happen. We learned a lesson.”

A “win-win”?

Deutsch, who has established other Ben Gamla Hebrew-English charter schools in Hollywood, Plantation and Sunrise, called the proposed acquisition of the property by the city a “win-win” for both sides. “We created a compromise.”

Hallandale Beach would acquire the property for an as yet unspecified community use and the school advocates would be able to move on and pursue other options, including possibly another location in Hallandale, Deutsch added.

The purchase proposal was added to Wednesday’s agenda by Community Redevelopment Agency director Alvin B. Jackson Jr. It asks the commission authorize the city manager to purchase the property, execute all related agreements and establish funding to pay for the purchase. CRA funds would apparently be used to make the acquisition.

Mayor Joy Cooper told Broward Bulldog she was pleased because, in part, the deal represents “a unique opportunity to address” the matter and the needs of the area. She declined further comment until the commission meeting.

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper

City Manager Mark Antonio declined to comment on details of the proposal. He said, however, Hallandale School LLC bought the property at a lower price than actual value because the synagogue would still be able to use the property at no cost. He said two appraisals showing the property value above $1.2 million will be revealed at the commission meeting.

Antonio and Cooper said use of the property will ultimately be determined by the city commission.

“This would end the battle,” said Cynthia Cabrera, one of the leaders of the neighborhood opposition to the school which needed special permission from the city to operate a facility in the neighborhood. Residents claimed the streets were too narrow and the traffic from the school would overwhelm the area.

“This would satisfy everybody and benefit the neighborhood and the Hallandale community” if the property would be developed for much needed park use, Cabrera said.

She expressed some concern about the $1.2 million price tag. Commissioners would “take heat if they overpay,” Cabrera said, adding, however, “It might be worth the premium price.”

Etty Sims, another neighborhood school opponent, said, “I like the idea of the city purchasing the property and I would like to see [an adjacent] park expanded.”

Several years ago, the city bought paid a considerable price for a lot just north of the synagogue that was developed into small Sunrise Park at 800 NE Fifth St., Cabrera said. The synagogue property, she said, is much larger. Broward County property records indicate the city purchase the site in December 2007, for $450,000.

Koslow says no “windfall”

Deutsch and his lawyer, former Hollywood City attorney Alan Koslow, said the school had offers higher than $1.2 million for the property at 416 NE Eighth Ave. which includes a 22,484-square-foot,two-story building.  “Our price was reasonable; it’s not a windfall,” said Koslow, who has been attorney for several Ben Gamla charter school initiatives.

Broward County property records show that Hallandale School LLC purchased the synagogue property in May, 2008 for $500,000. For tax years 2009, 2010, and 2011, the “just value” of the property was listed on county property records at $916,220. The 2010 tax bill was $27,515; and the 2009 bill was $27,139.

Ben Gamla charter schools stirred public debate about the separation of church and state before the group opened a school in Hollywood in August, 2007. The schools, which teach Hebrew in a cultural context and have mostly Jewish students, have provided a less expensive alternate to the privately operated Hebrew day schools whose tuition often run well over $10,000.

The Ben Gamla schools are free to students because they receive state funds through Florida’s charter school law; the funding per student is almost equal to that for a public school student, about $6,800.

Ben Gamla officials began their effort to put a school in the Hallandale Beach residential neighborhood in June 2007, requesting permission for a 200-student K-8 charter school. The application was approved by Planning and Zoning Board but the school withdrew the request before the matter went to the city commission.

The school made a second application to the Planning and Zoning Board in January, 2009 for an 800-student, K-12 school. After community meetings, it agreed to reduce the school to 600 students. The school withdrew its applications just prior to a vote by the Planning and Zoning Board on May 26, 2010.

The school’s third application was filed in June, 2010, requesting permission for a K-12 school for 600 students. After community meetings it agreed to reduce the size of the school to 450 students in grades K-8. In March, 2011, the Planning and Zoning Board approved the revised application.

The matter was slated for a final vote by the Hallandale Beach city commission on May 18, 2011, but the school and the city agreed to withdraw the item after the parties agreed to resolve the dispute.

Once the agreement is executed, the synagogue and Jewish Center would eventually have to vacate. Deutsch said he expected the existing tenant to leave by the end of the year if not sooner. Representatives for Hallandale LLC said efforts will be made to help the synagogue and Jewish Center relocate.

Reporter William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

 

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