Hallandale Beach Blog -A common sense public policy overview offering a critical perspective on the current events, politics, govt., public policy, sports scene and pop culture of the U.S., South Florida, Europe and Sweden. In particular, Broward & Miami-Dade County, and the cities of Hallandale Beach, Hollywood & Aventura. Trust me when I tell you, this part of Florida is NOT the Land of Lincoln. Pictured in upper-left is Hallandale Beach's iconic beachball-colored Water Tower on State Road A1A; September 2008 photo by me, South Beach Hoosier. © 2013 Hallandale Beach Blog, All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

As Wednesday night's Town Hall meeting at Hollywood City Hall re Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School looms, more and more people are raising and asking tough-but-reasonable questions about the use of Broward taxpayer money for more of Peter Deutsch's Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter Schools. Some even dare to wonder how high those management fees Deutsch and his business partners pay to Academica really are, and whether taxpayers will find out





Broward Bulldog
Hollywood neighbors oppose ex-U.S. Rep. Deutsch’s plan for another Ben Gamla school
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
August 12, 2013 at 5:53 AM
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.
Read the rest of the post at:
http://www.browardbulldog.org/2013/08/hollywood-neighbors-oppose-ex-u-s-rep-deutschs-plan-for-another-ben-gamla-school/


My comments are below the City of Hollywood announcement about Wednesday night's meeting in Hollywood, which I already knew about and received confirmation of from the city via an email I received last Friday at 7 p.m. 
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Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez to Host Town Hall Meeting with Special Guest Speaker State Representative Shevrin Jones Public Safety, Infrastructure Improvements and Proposed Doral Ben-Gamla Charter School on Agenda 
The District 2 Town Hall Meeting will provide residents an opportunity to get information and discuss issues relating to public safety, code compliance, utility infrastructure improvements and the proposed Doral Ben-Gamla Charter School. The meeting will be held Wednesday, August 28 at 7 p.m. at Hollywood City Hall, Commission Chambers (Room 219), 2600 Hollywood Boulevard. State Representative Jones will provide an update on his plans for a small business summit in October, crime prevention initiatives and his legislative agenda. 
Hollywood’s District 2 generally runs from Pembroke Road to Stirling Road between Dixie Highway to the east and the C-10 canal to the west, north of Sheridan Street, from N. Federal Highway on the east to 24th Avenue on the west, between Hollywood Boulevard and Sheridan Street and from S. Federal Highway to the east to I-95 to the west, south of Hollywood Boulevard. Neighborhoods in District 2 include Liberia, Highland Gardens, Parkside, Royal Poinciana and many others. 
For more information on this meeting, please contact the Office of the Mayor and Commission at 954.921.3321 
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On August 10th, my friend, longtime Hollywood resident, Broward County civic activist and education watchdog Charlotte Greenbarg emailed the following comments to the nine members of the Broward County School Board; emphasis in red is from her original email.

When this school came before the Board, there was a protracted discussion over a couple of meetings. Peter Deutsch promised that it would be focusing on the Hebrew language, not religion, which would be a violation of the Constitution.

Apparently that's not what has happened as the article below illustrates:

"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."
This needs to be re-examined quickly. It would be helpful to get the records of the discussion that took place before the vote to approve the charter.

Charlotte

Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Former congressman Peter Deutsch finds new life in Israel
Ra’anana resident is an Orthodox Jew who’s made unorthodox choices
By Uriel Heilman July 21, 2013, 3:15 pm
RA’ANANA, Israel (JTA) — When US Rep. Peter Deutsch lost his campaign for the US Senate in 2004, forcing him out of Congress for the first time in 12 years, he didn’t quite know what to do with himself.
So he did something not entirely uncommon among American Jews who haven’t quite figured out their next step: He went to Israel.
More than eight years later, Deutsch is still here, living with his family in Ra’anana, a Tel Aviv suburb. His 22-year-old son recently completed a stint as a combat soldier in the Israeli army, and his 21-year-old daughter is studying at an Orthodox women’s seminary.
Read the rest of the article at:
http://www.jta.org/2013/07/17/news-opinion/politics/after-career-in-congress-peter-deutsch-finds-new-life-in-israel

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On August 12th, Charlotte sent them the following article, with no comments:

New York Jewish Week
Hebrew Charter School As Growth Industry
Julie Wiener, Associate Editor
March 20, 20/12
Former Florida Rep. Peter Deutsch’s burgeoning network of schools is toeing the church-state line, and could greatly affect American Jewish life.
Boynton Beach, Fla. — As you turn off the main road and a large Torah scroll-shaped sign on your right welcomes you to the “Temple Torah Campus of Jewish Learning,” you could be forgiven for assuming the K-6 school you are about to visit is a Jewish day school.
That assumption might continue even as you walk inside the 190-student Ben Gamla Boynton, which is on the second floor of a Conservative synagogue, in a wing originally intended to house a Solomon Schechter school. Or when you meet Principal Elanit Weitzman and see the Hebrew translation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” displayed above her desk.

Read the rest of the article at:
http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new-york-news/hebrew-charter-school-growth-industry

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From my August 12th email about the Broward Bulldog article I wrote, in part: 


And who is the property owner in Hollywood who wants to sell the land to Deutsch & Co.Well, would you believe it's Hallandale Beach business man Richard Shan?

Yes, and a friend who is in the real estate business told me the following after they first heard about this news: Richard Shan had been trying to sell that lot to Deutsch for years....but Deutsch would not pay "market price."

Sadly, as a person who has long been a pro-charter school supporterand a consistent critic of the Broward School Board's general level of incompetency and lack of ethical backbone, to say nothing of its myopia, seeing Shan's name was the only part of the Broward Bulldog article that made me laugh.

That's because of how Deutsch happily played the role of mean-spirited bully when he continually browbeat the HB community while he tried to shoe-horn his plan for a Ben Gamla high school into a largely single-family Northeast HB neighborhood on one-way NE 8th Avenue, that would NOT include mostly HB kids, thus turning the property into a drive-thru commuter
school, not a genuine neighborhood school.

His attorneys and consultants thoroughly embarrassed officials at the city's Planning Dept., who seemed NOT to know the current laws on how charter schools are dealt with in Florida.

Hallandale Beach could desperately use some normal, well-run charter schools with real records of achievement to give some parents a genuine choice, but instead, White Flight continues unabated come time for Middle School or High School, as I wrote back in April  

You'll recall that I wrote frequently on my blog for over three years about that Ben Gamla
effort and how Peter Deutsch seemed to relish playing the role of former Congressman and telling HB citizens to their face that there was nothing that any elected officials in HB or Broward could do to stop him from getting what he wanted.

Yes, especially since we all learned to our dismay that his well-connected consultants were very helpful in writing the very rules on how charter schools are to be dealt with, which opponents of the plan never knew until it was too late, and those consultants had made the HB city officials look even more feeble and unprepared than usual.

As most of you know, eventually, Deutsch sold the property to the city for $1.2 million for the 1.9-acre parcel at 416 NE Eighth Avenue -much-more than it was worth- so it could become a HB city park at some unknown day in the future.

(Yes, just like the empty, fallow future-park parcels located a block from HB City Hall on Old Dixie Highway, next to Bluesten Park, that the City of Hallandale Beach spent millions on years ago without ANY actual plan!)

Though it may've changed, last I heard, Academica was still the charter school management company at the Ben Gamla facility in Hollywood across the street from Hollywood City Hall.
If you need more proof of how things really get done in Florida and see how an Academica
lobbyist actually wrote legislation that benefits his employer, look at the Miami Herald article below.
As always, for Peter Deutsch, it's nice to have influential friends in influential places.

Meanwhile, citizens in affected South Florida neighborhoods wonder if there's anything they can legally do now when it seems like some arrogant charter schools have both the power and the means to dis-arm them in Tallahassee, and mute their voices -and those of their elected officialsbefore the lowest level of government, the municipal, where their voices should actually be loudest and most-persuasive.

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Excerpt from my August 16th email:

Per the comments of Deutsch in the Broward Bulldog reader comments about Doral, above, a very well-informed friend who closely follows education issues in Broward from Pembroke Pines wrote me, "Please be sure to ask about the grades at all of his Ben Gamla schools. Poor, except for the Hollywood one."  

See also:

Jewish public schools? Hebrew charter franchises offer radically different models

By Uriel Heilman, July 1, 2013 2:36pm

and their submitted Traffic Impact Analysis

That's important not just for the self-evident reasons you might think of yourself, but also because parts of the newspaper articles I've copied and pasted below actually deal with some of those traffic mitigation efforts of the Academic and Doral schools -and how they've largely failed the residents of the neighborhood they're located in.

Below, how an Academica lobbyist -who is a state legislator- wrote legislation that limits or prevents a city's abilities to have any power over the size of a charter school, which means limits the right of neighbors and citizens of the community it's located in, like the present situation in Hollywood.
Why would that be a good idea?

That connection is important to keep in mind at all times because as the article states "Ben Gamla pays Academica to manage its four schools. [Deutsch] said no decision has been made about the company providing management services for the new Doral-Ben Gamla school."

Below is a 2011 Miami Herald article that really explained in great detail how interconnected a handful of people in Miami and Tallahassee were that were involved with charter schools, including Ralph Arza and Anitere Flores.
It's easily one of the best things that's run in the Herald in the last five years, something I thought immediately as I read it almost 21 months ago.

My emphasis below in red.

Miami Herald
Academica cultivates links to lawmakers - Academica has powerful friends in Tallahassee, including Rep. Erik Fresen — the brother of the CEO’s wife.
By Scott Hiaasen and Kathleen McGrory
December 14, 2011

On April 15, the board of Doral Academy selected state Sen. Anitere Flores to run a new college proposed by the charter school network. As the college president, Flores will work side by side with Academica , the influential charter school management company that will also manage the college. 

At the time the Doral Academy board selected her, Flores, who sits on an education committee in Tallahassee, was also sponsoring a bill in the Legislature to create online virtual charter schools, a new school model expected to dramatically expand the charter school industry. Since the proposal passed, Academica has applied for 19 virtual charters — including two with Doral Academy, state records show. 

Flores, a Miami Republican, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment, though this summer she said her new job did not create a conflict. But the arrangement illustrates the extent of Academica ’s reach in Tallahassee, where the company has long cultivated influence among state lawmakers. 

Academica ’s owners, Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta, have steered $150,000 in campaign donations to Tallahassee lawmakers and political committees through real-estate companies they control since 2007, state election records show. The Zulueta family has donated a further $75,000 in the past five years, and Academica executives and school contractors donated a further $54,000, records show. 

During that time, the Legislature relaxed rules limiting the size of charter school networks, and passed a law promoting “high performing” charter school systems — reforms that could benefit Academica as the company expands. 

Academica ’s closest ally in the capital is in the family: Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, is the brother-in-law of Fernando Zulueta , Academica ’s CEO. Zulueta is married to Fresen’s sister, Maggie, who also is an Academica executive. 

Fresen himself is a former Academica lobbyist. He now earns $150,000 a year as a land-use consultant for Civica, a Doral architectural firm that has built several schools run by Academica — including schools on land controlled by the Zulueta brothers. Civica has ongoing contracts with many of these schools. 

While working as a consultant for charter schools, Fresen has been their champion in the Legislature, where he sits on a key education committee in the House. 

Earlier this year, Fresen drafted language in an education bill barring cities from imposing stricter zoning or building regulations on charter schools. At the time, the city of South Miami was considering zoning regulations that could have inhibited expansion of the Somerset Academy at SoMi, an Academica school. 

Somerset also challenged zoning restrictions limiting enrollment at another Academica school, the Somerset Grace Academy in Coral Gables — an ongoing dispute that could be influenced by the new legislation. Fresen has registered at Coral Gables City Hall as a lobbyist on behalf of Somerset, records show. 

Fresen said his work with Civica has not influenced his work as a lawmaker, noting that the charter school bill applies not just to Academica ’s schools, but to all charter schools statewide. 

“My decision on any bill would not be based on what I do for a living,” he said. 

In October, Fresen was cleared in an ethics investigation sparked by a complaint that his vote this spring on the high-performing charter schools legislation was a conflict that should have been disclosed. Fresen said he consulted with an attorney in the House of Representatives before making the vote, and he later disclosed his ties to Academica . 

Academica ’s links to state lawmakers have drawn scrutiny before. 

From 2002 to 2006, Academica also paid $230,000 to then-Rep. Ralph Arza of Hialeah under an undisclosed consulting contract, records show. At the time, Arza also sat on an education committee in the House. 

Miami-Dade prosecutors investigated Arza’s ties to Academica in 2007 and 2008, records show. While being paid by Academica , Arza authored or backed at least five bills that could have benefited the charter school industry, according to records compiled by prosecutors. However, they could find no evidence that the Academica contract improperly influenced Arza’s votes. 

In an interview last week, Arza said his consulting business was conducted “with the blessing of the House counsel and legal advice,” and he said he did nothing in the Legislature to benefit Academica . “As long as I voted on something that was not specific to one person, that’s allowed.” 

Under the Academica contract, which paid Arza $5,000 a month, the Republican lawmaker was to monitor “quality control” for Academica and help the company identify teachers and staff. 

Arza never publicly disclosed the Academica consulting deal, which was made through a company held in the name of his wife, Eris. Arza said he was not obliged to disclose the names of his clients. 

Explaining the contract arrangement to prosecutors, Arza’s wife described her husband as an “independent contractor” who worked for her. 

“I make sure that I counsel Ralph on everything he does,” she said in a sworn statement in 2008. “I manage him, pretty much.” 

Zulueta said he hired Arza not because he was a lawmaker, but because of his contacts in the local education community. Arza was a former teacher and football coach at Miami Senior High. 

“There was nothing he could do in the Legislature to help me,” Zulueta said. 

Arza’s contract with Academica ended soon after his career in Tallahassee did — after he agreed not to run again in 2006 amid allegations that he had threatened a potential witness in an ethics investigation. 

Just three weeks after stepping aside, Arza got a new job: as a $10,000-a-month consultant with the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, a pro-charter school organization that counts Zulueta as a board member. Arza still works for the consortium today. 


Zulueta said he had no role in Arza’s job with the consortium.
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More from my email of August 16th:


As a person who for years has been a pro-charter school proponent while living in Washington, D.C. and then Arlington County, VA for 15 years before returning to this area over nine years ago, my time in Hallandale Beach has certainly been an education into the unsavory side of the charter school issue, thanks to what I've witnessed first-hand in Hallandale Beach with charter school bully-boy Peter Deutsch.

Personally, I think that it will be VERY INTERESTING to see if the present Ben Gamla parents from around the county try to show-up, en masse, at Comm. Pete Hernandez's 7 p.m. public meeting on August 28th at Hollywood City Hall, and try the same tactics there that they did in Hallandale Beach TWICE that left such a sour taste in my mouth and hundreds of other HB residents who attended them.

More specifically, whether those parents will try to act like... well, like they did at all the public meetings in HB, where spineless then-HB City Manger Mark A. Antonio foolishly allowed them to hold two of three "community meetings" at their own building -The Hallandale Jewish Center- with its lack of A/C, made worse by the completely ineffective electric fans for the crowds that showed-up.

An uncomfortable situation made all the worse with Deutsch being allowed to act as moderator of all three meetings and thus able to either refute or try to embarrass those who said something he didn't like hearing -often after people were walking back to their seats after their allotted speaking time.
Deutsch, of course, gave himself unlimited time to speak and openly criticized, ridiculed or publicly maligned anyone who spoke who stood in his way of getting what he and his financial partners wanted.

With rare exceptions, the BG parents who showed-up in HB and actually spoke were... how can I put this, well, almost uniformly rude, crass and disrespectful of HB residents and HB schools, even attacking the elementary schools that are doing a good job.
This was especially the case for some reason with Ben Gamla parents from Tamarac.
They acted like it didn't matter what the people in the neighborhood or elected officials of Hallandale Beach wanted, they were going to get what they wanted -and that was THAT!

But that should hardly be surprising since Deutsch had repeatedly said the same exact thing 
at a meeting of HB citizens at the HB Cultural Center that he didn't control.
Not that any of this attitude was ever reported upon in the Herald or Sun-Sentinel, and certainly NOT in the faux-newspaper in Hallandale Beach that HB citizens are forced to subsidize against their wills, in exchange for it being used as a propaganda sheet for HB City Hall.

Frankly, given everything at play here, I don't see any reason to expect any 
different behavior from the BG parents from around the county at Comm. Peter
Hernandez's meeting on the 28th, so consider yourself warned.

Just saying... while it's not always true, sometimes, "past (really) is prologue."


My emphasis below in RED.

Miami Herald 
Neighbors fight plan for 2,000-student school in Kendall
By Jenny Staletovich
April 24, 2013


Plans to replace a small neighborhood school in East Kendall with a massive charter school housing 2,000 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade drew a crowd of outraged residents this week demanding the school be stopped. 

Despite their objections, charter representatives told about 100 residents who filled a church sanctuary Tuesday that the campus will open in August. 

The new Somerset Academy Bay at Pinewood Acres, 9500 SW 97th Ave., would become part of an expanding empire for the school’s for-profit management company, 
Academica. Somerset has asked the Miami-Dade school district to approve two five-year charters for the campus, including a K-5 with 750 students, and a middle school with another 750 students, a district spokesman said. 

Somerset representatives said they have already received 875 applications, and believe the campus can eventually hold all 2,000 students. 

“Realistically, that is the number we think the site can sustain,” architect Rolando Llanes said. 

Plans for the charter first surfaced in February after a Somerset campus in Coral Gables lost its lease and parents were told their children would be bused to a new Kendall campus. A week later, Somerset presented preliminary plans to revamp the old Pinewood Acres school at a county zoning meeting packed with angry neighbors. In the meantime, parents from the Gables campus say they still have not been told where their children will attend school in the fall. 

“We missed magnet programs that are basically comparable to the charter programs and apparently most of us will have no choice but a second lottery,” parent Anna Elena Brana complained in an email. 

Hugo Arza, an attorney for Somerset, said Tuesday that the school decided to take over Pinewood after finding a demand in the area. Of the 875 applications, he said about 70 percent came from nearby zip codes. 

Originally founded to focus on early childhood development, Pinewood has been owned and operated by the Lones family for the last 60 years. It grew to include middle school grades, but never enrolled more than 250 students. Or lost its camp-like charm. Declining enrollment for the last five years, Judy Lones said, finally prompted the family to sign a five-year lease-to-purchase deal with Somerset. 

“This was the best solution at the time, to keep it going and growing and providing a service for the kids in the area. The small school is just a good match,” she said in February. “It gives our students and teachers and other children in our area an opportunity to continue to be here.” 

But Somerset’s plans would increase enrollment nearly tenfold. And only three of 13 Pinewood teachers were hired. While she would not discuss specific hiring, Principal Saili Hernandez said in an email that Somerset has so far selected nine teachers “from qualified applicants based on numerous factors including the curriculum and grade levels.” 

In February, county staff warned Somerset that their plan was too big for the neighborhood, which straddles the Don Shula Expressway and includes both stately homes on carefully tended one-acre lots and densely packed zero lot-line houses. The charter would face 97th Avenue, the main, two-lane road that provides access into the neighborhood, as well as Miami Killian High Senior High. Another road, Southwest 96th Street, cuts through the 8-acre campus and leads to a smaller cul de sac. County staff told Somerset to meet with neighbors and come up with a compromise. 

In the meantime, the application remains on hold until Somerset submits revised plans and a charter that specifies the number of students. The application may be viewed at hrld.us/17Uf9UE

To resolve traffic problems, Somerset is considering creating two “autonomous facilities” on either side of 96th Street with more room for cars to line up when students arrive and depart, Llanes said. The change would also mean students would not cross 96th Street, which Miami-Dade school district architect Victor Alonso, who lives in the neighborhood, and county staff warned would not be allowed. 

Llanes, along with Arza, Hernandez and Somerset board member Ana Diaz, assured neighbors the charter school planned on being a “good neighbor.” 

“While it may not be a Kumbaya for everybody, we will certainly try to get closer to the sensibilities of everyone,” he said. 

But again and again, residents complained that the two-story buildings totaling more than 100,000 square feet would ruin their tranquil neighborhood, where foxes roam backyards and residents motor around in golf carts. 

“It’s all stacked against us,” said resident Barry J. White. “We can stand on our heads and spit nickels and it doesn’t make any difference.” 

Residents repeatedly asked how Somerset would address traffic generated by three different schedules for elementary, middle school and high school students. Resident Harold Rifas, who works next to Somerset’s Doral Academy Preparatory School on Northwest 27th Street, brought along pictures showing cars parked on swales, in turn lanes and tying up traffic. To keep his parking spaces from filling up, he drapes a chain across his lot.

“We’re not talking about a residential neighborhood,” he said. “This is commercial and it’s mayhem.

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From my August 17th email:

Ben Gamla Charter in Hollywood were among those cited with a deficit. This lack of attention wouldn't happen in Hollywood but is still worth noting:

from the June 23rd Tampa Bay Times

Pinellas abruptly closes Ben Gamla charter school
http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/pinellas-abruptly-closes-ben-gamla-charter-school/2128236

Take a look at Ben Gamla's numbers here:

South Florida Sun-Sentinel 
Charter schools struggling - Audit: Seventeen schools in Broward ended 2011-12 financial year with a deficit 
By Scott Travis, Staff writer 

August 17, 2013
http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2013-08-16/news/fl-charter-school-audit-20130815_1_charter-schools-schools-siphon-money-traditional-schools
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Broward Bulldog
Fresh questions about use of public money for Deutsch’s Ben Gamla charter schools
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 
August 21, 2013 AT 6:22 AM
A Broward civic activist has urged the School Board to re-examine whether the publicly funded Ben Gamla charter schools are violating the Constitutional separation of church and state mandate.
In response, a top district official has asked for a review of the matter.
Charlotte Greenbarg, a Hollywood resident, contacted board members after reading a July 21 article in an Israeli newspaper about school founder and former Democratic Congressman Peter Deutsch and his endeavors to create Ben Gamla schools in South Florida.

Read the rest of the article at:
http://www.browardbulldog.org/2013/08/fresh-questions-about-use-of-public-money-for-deutschs-ben-gamla-charter-schools/

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Last year, after I'd sent around a series of Herald articles about charter schools as an email, my friend Charlotte Greenbarg, independently of me, sent me and others a comment about one of the articles that you might want to read before the meeting at the end of the month.
Again, my emphasis below is in RED.  

Jon Hage is right on. Charters were supposed to do more with less. Most of them aren't making the grade, unfortunately. The management companies (not Jon's) are taking huge amounts and delivering less than stellar results.  
Charlotte    

Miami Herald 
Public education  Bill would benefit big charter school firms  
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would force public school districts to share tax dollars used for construction and maintenance.  
By Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiaasen 
February 19, 2012

TALLAHASSEE -- A legislative plan to give charter schools a cut of local school districts’ construction money would steer millions of additional dollars to large charter-school networks that are already sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash, records show.  

The charter-school industry is lobbying hard in the capital to gain a share of tax dollars raised by school districts to cover the construction and maintenance costs of traditional public schools — tax revenue that has dropped dramatically in recent years with plummeting real-estate values. Currently, school districts are not required to share these tax dollars with charter schools.  

School districts say the proposal could cost them as much as $140 million a year statewide and cripple their ability to repair aging school buildings and pay debts for past construction. But charter school operators say the lesser funding for their students is inherently unfair, and argue that withholding construction money has stifled charter schools’ growth.  

Earlier this month, Doug Rodriguez, the principal of the Doral Academy Preparatory Middle/High charter school, told a Senate committee that the lack of construction money has “placed a cap on our school. We’re not able to expand.”  

But many charter schools, including Rodriguez’s, routinely collect more tax dollars than they spend, and sock away the unspent cash. The Doral Academy charter-school network, comprised of five Miami-Dade schools, had net assets of $13.6 million last year, much of it cash, records show.  

The Doral Academy network is one of four large South Florida charter-school chains run by Academica, the state’s largest charter school operator. These four school networks — the Doral, Mater, Somerset and Pinecrest academies — had combined assets of more than $83 million last year, records show. This money is held by nonprofit companies that own the schools, which are managed by Academica, a for-profit company based in South Miami.  

These schools could stand to gain millions more every year from the construction tax dollars, which would be distributed on a per-student basis. For example, the Doral, Mater, Somerset and Pinecrest academies — which now have 45 percent of all charter-school students in Miami-Dade County — would receive an additional $14.5 million from the Miami-Dade school district this year alone under the proposal. 

Academica’s schools aren’t the only ones with growing reserves. The Keys Gate charter schools in Homestead, managed by Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA, have about $5 million in cash reserves, and the nearby Charter School at Waterstone, run by Charter School Associates, had $2.6 million in assets last year, most of it cash, records show.  

Lynn Norman Teck, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said charters should not be cut out of construction funding because some schools have managed to save money.  “Their reserves are for a rainy day,” Teck said. “I don’t think it is fair to penalize a group of charter schools for being financially savvy.” 

Andreina Figueroa, chairwoman of the Somerset Academy charter-school network, said her schools put money away to safeguard against funding cuts. The 31 Somerset schools in Miami-Dade and Broward have more than 10,000 students and $25 million in assets, records show.  

“We can’t control what the Legislature does,” Figueroa said. “We need to know that if the state of Florida cuts us, we can continue to educate our students.”  

In contrast, many smaller, independent charters don’t have cash reserves, and struggle to pay for maintenance and construction under the current financing rules, Teck said.  

The proposed legislation would allow charters to spend the new tax dollars on construction and related expenses, and facility leases. Many South Florida charters lease their school buildings from companies with ties to their for-profit managers. 

Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, a sponsor of the proposal, said the issue is fairness: Under today’s rules, charter schools receive less money per student than traditional public schools. While some schools have large cash reserves, “the mom-and-pops have nothing,” he said. “We’re going to make all the kids equal.”  

But opponents of the measure say it will mainly benefit the large charter-school operators with high enrollment and robust balance sheets.  

“These are not the mom-and-pop charter schools that are pushing for this. These are the big management companies,” said Georgia Slack, a lobbyist for the Broward County School District.  

At the moment, the fate of the proposal remains uncertain. A Senate education committee approved Wise’s bill. But the sponsor in the House of Representatives was unable to tack on similar language to the House version of the bill last week. Observers believe the provision will resurface in a later draft.  

Slack said the proposal would cost the Broward school system at least $20 million a year. Miami-Dade officials estimate that the funding change would cost $37 million in the next school year, and $45 million the following year.  

The school districts say they can’t afford to lose the tax money, most of which goes not to construction costs but to pay the debt on bonds. Nearly one-third of Florida’s school districts use all of their construction taxes to pay down debt.  

The Miami-Dade School District is expected to collect about $267 million next year through the tax, but $182 million of that would have to go toward paying off bonds — leaving only a fraction for maintenance and construction. Overall, the capital budgets of the Miami-Dade and Broward school districts have dropped more than 70 percent in the past five years, as sinking property values dragged down tax revenues. 

Maintenance needs, meanwhile, continue to grow. Miami-Dade — where half the school buildings are more than four decades old — has more than $1.7 billion in outstanding capital needs, from air conditioners that need replacing to leaky pipes and electrical upgrades.  

The Broward school system, which has $1.8 billion in capital needs, can’t buy new computers for classrooms, Slack said. “We have stopped all cosmetic painting,” she told lawmakers.  

Last week, the Fitch bond-rating agency warned that diverting local tax money to charters would put a significant strain on school districts — a hint that school districts’ credit ratings could suffer as a result.  

“We need to slow the train down and look at the very serious implications for charter schools and traditional public schools,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, the bill’s most vocal opponent. Montford is also the CEO of the Florida Association of School Superintendents.  

But charter school operators have little sympathy for school districts, which both oversee charter schools and compete with them for students.  

“The inability of a school district to fund itself should not justify unequal funding for our students,” John Sullivan, a lobbyist for the charter school consortium, told lawmakers earlier this month.  

Facility costs are also a major burden for charter schools. Several South Florida charters have paid more than 25 percent of their revenue toward lease costs — and schools tend to pay more when the management company has ties to the landlord, a Herald review found last year. In 2010, 30 percent of Broward’s charter schools reported a net loss, with some schools citing lease costs as the main reason.  

“These are schools that have to practically beg, borrow and steal for capital dollars,” Teck said.  

But critics say the legislative proposal will increase public spending on facilities that would remain in private hands — even after a charter school has shut down. In Florida, about one in four charter schools ultimately shuts down, usually for financial reasons, records show.  

Not all charter management companies advocate equal funding from taxpayers. Jonathan Hage, the CEO of Charter Schools USA, said lesser funding encourages charter schools to operate more efficiently, and he noted that charter schools don’t have to meet the more rigorous building codes of traditional public schools.  

Hage instead believes charters should receive 85 percent, rather than 100 percent, of the construction dollars per student. 

“Charter schools should be able to do more with less,” said Hage, whose company manages more than 30 charter schools statewide. “There are inefficiencies in the charter school world in the way they build their buildings, and savings that can be passed on to the taxpayer."
------

The article below is proof that Academica, despite all its lobbyists, fat bank accounts and Tallahassee and Miami "connections," sometimes thinks it can just ignore the law -and the lack of a signature on a contract- and can muscle its way into getting what it wants, and is surprised that people in affected neighborhoods can use their own elected representatives to push back against them and say NO.
Something you might just want to think about in the coming weeks!


Miami Herald 

State Board rejects appeals from three virtual charter schools in Miami-Dade - They were among the first applications to open full-time, web-based charter schools in Miami-Dade, under a state law passed last year.

By Laura Isensee
July 17, 2012

The state Board of Education rejected appeals Tuesday from three virtual charter schools that wanted to open in Miami-Dade. 
At its meeting in Fort Lauderdale, the board upheld the previous decision by the Miami-Dade School Board to reject their applications and followed the recommendation by the charter school appeal commission to deny the appeals. 

“Our students do deserve a solid virtual charter option. These are not it,” said Mindy McNichols, an assistant Miami-Dade school district attorney. 

She argued that the virtual charter school applicants -- Mater Virtual Charter School, Mater Virtual Academy Charter Middle/High School and Somerset Virtual Academy Charter Middle/High -- did not meet the state’s basic legal application requirements, including a contract with a virtual content provider. All three virtual charter hopefuls work with Academica, which is the state’s largest charter school management company and is led by Fernando Zulueta. 

A spokesman for the applicants, Douglas Rodriguez, said they had an unsigned contract with K12 Florida. 

“I ask the board today to take into account that not having a signature on a contract should not be sufficient cause to deny the children of Miami-Dade of such a wonderful provider,” said Rodriguez, principal at Doral Academy, another Academica-managed charter. 

There was little discussion by the board on the issue. All board members voted to reject the appeals, except for John Padget. 

Rodriguez said the virtual charter schools “will certainly be submitting new applications.” 

The board’s move comes on the heels of a decision by an appeals court to reverse the state Board of Education’s decision on a different charter school, Rise Academy. In that case, the board went against both the district and the charter school commission’s stance to close the school and gave it the option to reopen. It never did. 

McNichols noted that case during discussion. 

“You can’t just ignore the school board’s decision … or the recommendation from the balanced charter school appeal commission,” she said. 

The Miami-Dade School Board had rejected the initial applications in January. 

They were among the first applications Miami-Dade considered under a new state law that allows virtual charter schools. The schools have no building and offer full-time, web-based courses. 
-----
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Florida school board reviewing Peter Deutsch’s Ben Gamla schools 
August 26, 2013 12:14pm 
(JTA) — A Florida school board is reviewing whether the Ben Gamla Hebrew charter school network violates the law by mixing religion with public schooling. 
The review was prompted by a JTA story published July 17 in which Ben Gamla founder Peter Deutsch described the publicly funded charter schools as builders of Jewish identity.  

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