With the New Year fast approaching, here’s a look back at what made headlines this year in Cherry Hill.
From Bernie Platt’s retirement announcement after years in office, to lively debates about a potential Cherry Hill-Merchantville merger and the impending arrival of a charter school in town, to the township’s strides in sharing services and advocating for sustainability, to a bold Cherry Hill student who challenged a national political figure, sparking controversy and becoming an overnight Internet sensation — Cherry Hill has seen it all this year.
Let’s rewind the clocks and remember what made 2011 a memorable year in the township.
Platt kicked off the year with a cost-saving announcement to the tune of $2 million.
Cherry Hill, Gloucester Township, and the Borough of Merchantville banded together and went out collectively for a new trash-collection contract and signed a five-year deal. The contract would provide for the exact same trash collection service Cherry Hill has enjoyed in past years, Platt said, while saving the township almost $500,000 per year.
The total contract, which began in January, was $28.6 million with Republic Services.
Meanwhile, the search for a new school superintendent continued. With David Campbell’s looming departure at the close of the school year, board of education president Seth Klukoff announced the board had selected seven candidates to interview for the position.
“The search is going very well,” Klukoff said, “and we’re very happy with pool thus far. The candidates we’re talking to, will bring a wealth of experience (to the district).”
Discussions also surfaced about a possible countywide police force. County and local officials began to meet later in the month to discuss the potential plan.
Almost six months after setting the 2011 fiscal year tax levy, the township council adopted its municipal budget. The 2011 fiscal year budget saw $44.7 million in taxes levied.
It was a difficult budget year, Platt said.
The state had cut more than $3.6 million in funding to Cherry Hill over the last three years.
In February, the release of the 2009–2010 State School Report Cards proved Cherry Hill’s role as a leader in public education.
One place the district is clearly not struggling is with SAT scores. Cherry Hill East scored the number two spot, both in the county and tri-county region, for overall SAT scores.
It was Cherry Hill West, however, that made the most noise, dramatically increasing its SAT scores over last year. The improvement gave them the fourth highest scores in the county, and sixth highest in the 51 school, tri-county region. Both schools crushed the state averages in the math, verbal and essay portions of the test.
The school was thrilled with the SAT results,” West principal Joseph Meloche said. “We bucked the national trend.”
Five challengers announced their intent to run against three incumbents for three-year seats on the Cherry Hill Board of Education, while one incumbent ran for reelection to a two-year seat. Incumbents Seth Klukoff, Eric Goodwin, and Carol Matlack faced off against challengers Andrew Behrend, Valery Boyarsky, J. Barry Dickinson, Ryan Green and Meng Zhang, while Elliott Roth ran unopposed.
Flanked by Cherry Hill police officers and firefighters, Platt announced the township’s plans to erect a permanent memorial in remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“And for several years now, the township and members of the police and fire department have been search for a fitting way to permanently pay tribute here in Cherry Hill,” Platt said.
One of Cherry Hill’s students became an Internet meme overnight.
In her letter to Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., 16-year-old Amy Myers writes that she is a “typical high school student.”
What the Cherry Hill East sophomore did, however, was not exactly typical.
Myers challenged Bachmann to a public debate.
Her April 29 letter to Bachmann included, “I have found quite a few of your statements regarding the Constitution of the United States, the quality of public school education and general U.S. civics matters to be factually incorrect, inaccurately applied or grossly distorted,” Myers said. “The frequency and scope of these comments prompted me to write this letter.”
Myers, the op-ed editor of The Eastside, East’s school newspaper, said she has been outraged by how Bachmann has informed the public about historical events.
Bachmann never took Myers up on her offer.
Meanwhile, an incident that sparked a neighborhood controversy — a rash of burglaries in the Ashland neighborhood were traced by the police department back to an individual staying at the Solid Rock Worship Center at 99 Burnt Mill Road.
Residents from the neighborhood made their voices heard loudly and clearly about rash of burglaries in their community in late March.
The Cherry Hill Police Department stepped up its presence in the neighborhood and came to the mayor with concerns about the burglaries.
Solid Rock’s pastor of 18 years, Amir Khan, said the man who committed the burglaries was staying at the church.
“He did say he had a record, but we were not aware of the extent,” Khan said. “As soon as we heard of the burglaries, we got rid of him.”
Khan apologized for the robberies in the neighborhood.
“We’re a loving church. We’re sorry that the gentleman robbed the homes,” Khan said.
In early April, more than 200 people gathered at the Horrace Mann school cafeteria to hear what Khan, Platt, police officers and township officials had to say about the Solid Rock Worship Center.
Platt read a list of questions at the meeting neighbors sent in to the township. Khan and Platt answered the questions and also fielded inquires from residents, who, at times, raised their voices at the pair.
Platt informed the audience the township found the Solid Rock Worship Center to be in compliance with the current zoning ordinances.
The following week, Platt made a stunning announcement he would not seek re-election.
Democrat Chuck Cahn and Republican Stephen Buividas announced their candidacies soon thereafter.
And, just in time for Earth Day, Cherry Hill Township rolled out its updated Green Action Plan, which included 10 goals to make the community greener, while saving taxpayers money.
The original plan was implemented in March 2008. Now, three years later, Platt said he wanted to draw up a new plan that shows progress from the past and ideas for the future.
“The original Green Action Plan put Cherry Hill on the map for sustainability,” Platt said. “You can see it all around our community; in the rooftop solar panels at DPW, the big blue RecycleBank cans that line our streets, the hybrid SUV’s at Town Hall.”
And by the end of the month, the Cherry Hill School District’s budget passed with 3,696 voters approving the budget and 2,595 voting against it.
Voters approved the 2011–2012 budget, which included a $500,000 reduction in the tax levy. Despite a smaller tax levy, the average assessed home at $140,000 saw an approximate increase of $107 in their tax bill.
Meanwhile, the Cherry Hill Police Department gave the green light to the newest member of the force, a traffic enforcement camera at Route 70 and Springdale Road.
The cameras, which debuted on April 25, were part of a pilot program sponsored by the state Department of Transportation.
Mayor Bernie Platt said he believes the camera system would benefit both the police department and the community.
“It is my belief that this technology will make Cherry Hill a safer community in which to live and work,” Platt said. “This camera system will give police an enforcement power not otherwise available to them. It will ultimately help us maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the manpower within the CHPD.”
Gov. Christie signed a law (A-3587) that clarified a New Jersey municipality’s ability to study consolidation.
The merger did not move forward previously because residents in the two municipalities arrived at the conclusion to study a potential merge by two different means.
Voters signed a petition in Merchantville to look into a merge. In Cherry Hill, the council approved a motion to study a potential merge. The local finance board denied the request to mutually study a merge.
Assembly Democrats Lou Greenwald, Pam Lampitt, Connie Wagner and Valerie Vainieri Huttle sponsored the bill to ease municipal consolidation after the state rejected a merger study by Merchantville and Cherry Hill.
The Solid Rock Worship Center came under fire again when the organization was found to owe money to its landlord, the Diocese of Camden.
In October 2010, Solid Rock signed a lease with the diocese and Holy Rosary Parish. In 2009 the parish merged with the Holy Eucharist Parish at 344 Kresson Road, said Peter Feuerherd, the diocese’s director of communications.
Solid Rock signed a lease with the parish, with the intent to purchase the property, which includes the former rectory, school, convent and church.
The total cost of the property, Feuerherd said, is $2.9 million.
In early April, Feuerherd said the tenant had not paid the balance owed.
“Legally, they have not lived up to their part of the bargain,” Feuerherd said. “Our goal is to enforce the agreement.”
And on May 2, without proper payment, Feuerherd said, the parish took action.
Holy Eucharist Parish filed civil action with the Superior Court of New Jersey for the $2.9 million previously agreed upon, he said.
“The date has passed. Holy Eucharist has asked Solid Rock to leave the premise,” Feuerherd said. “Action has been taken. We have to rely on the civil authorities.”
On May 30, the Cherry Hill Fire Department mourned the loss of one of its one.
William Walker Jr. visited a house party on the 1200 block of Kay Drive East. He got into an argument with 19-year-old Naqueebullah Habibi of the 800 block of Cooper Landing Rd., said Rich Minardi, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor’s office. Minardi said the argument started over a drinking game. The argument turned physical, he said and Walker was stabbed in the chest.
Walker was rushed to Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where he was pronounced dead.
Walker Jr., 21, began volunteering with the department in 2005, working regularly at Station 5, at Route 38 and Church Rd., Fire Chief Robert Giorgio said. His father, William Walker Sr., a retired Cherry Hill Fire Department captain, left his post in January after 31 years.
Much fanfare surrounded the governor’s arrival to Cherry Hill early in the month.
The day prior to Christie’s coming, the state Supreme Court ruled the state would need to fund an additional $500 million in aid to the 31 Abbot districts, which receive additional funding to ensure an adequate education to children in urban schools.
Christie told a crowd of nearly 200 residents that he was not pleased with the court’s decision at the National Guard Armory at Grove Street and Park Boulevard during his 17th town hall meeting this year.
“Want to solve the problem on school funding?” Christie asked. “We do not raise taxes on the most overtaxed people in the United States of America.”
Christie told residents it’s time for a change in the way state aid is calculated.
As of June, the township became the proud home of two of 41 newly designated national recreation trails across the country.
The federal Department of the Interior announced the trails at historic Barclay and Croft Farm sites have joined the ranks of more than 1,100 previously designated trails across the country.
The recent crop of trail inductees hails from 17 states.
Cherry Hill’s trails are the only in the state that made this list year.
“I’m pleased and proud to be home to two of the nation’s richest trail networks on the grounds of our local historical sites, Barclay and Croft farms,” Platt said. “These trails provide a multitude of benefits for our community, chief among them, the ability to connect our residents with nature and expand the recreational and educational opportunities available to people of all ages.”
Meanwhile, Route 70 was about to welcome a new addition to its landscape.
State Sen. Jim Beach and Sustainable Cherry Hill’s Lori Braunstein came together to brainstorm how to make the 8.3-mile thoroughfare through the township more aesthetically pleasing and sustainable.
The group came up with one wild idea. Wildflowers.
With the help and support of the state Department of Transportation and the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the township announced the addition of 10 sections of wildflowers, spanning from the Pennsauken border, east to the Marlton border along Route 70.
Early in the month, it was tough to visit our friends across the border in Haddonfield as the Camden County Department of Public Works began roadway and streetscape improvements at the intersection of Potter and Ellis streets. Construction closed some lanes of traffic, dotting the streets with hundreds of orange cones and barrels and detouring traffic that wishes to access Haddonfield-Berlin and Kresson Roads.
After news of Dr. David Campbell’s 2011 retirement became known, Dr. Maureen Reusche, along with 18 other applicants, applied to the board of education in October, with their eyes set on Campbell’s vacant seat.
The board interviewed seven candidates in January; district and community stakeholders interviewed Reusche and another candidate in March.
In July, the board approved the appointment of Reusche as interim superintendent.
“She’s coming into the position with a vision and we look forward to working with her,” said board president Seth Klukoff.”
Meanwhile, talks between Merchantville and Cherry Hill advanced, both appointing community members to serve on a joint committee that would further look into a possible consolidation between the two municipalities.
Members of the newly appointed Cherry Hill and Merchantville commissions held two public meetings at the end of the month; the first for Cherry Hill residents, followed by a joint meeting of both municipalities, to give residents a chance to voice their opinions about a potential merger of the two entities.
At the meeting, dozens of residents from both Cherry Hill and Merchantville addressed members of the commission with questions and concerns about potential changes to schooling, possible consolidation in the police and fire departments, layoffs for municipal employees, changes to residents’ tax bills and trepidation about potential loss of the borough’s downtown character.
From there, committee members awaited an Aug. 13 decision from the DCA’s local finance board on whether they could move forward with the study.
By the end of the month, one family was able to honor their son Jake by breaking ground for a special place at Challenge Grove Park.
The park will be the first of its kind in South Jersey — designed for disabled and able-bodied children to play and learn together.
“It’s helping other families,” Joseph Nasto said of the Build Jake’s Place Boundless playground.
The mayor’s race was heating up in August. Both candidates, Republican Buividas and Democrat Cahn, said the most important thing they had been focusing on is getting out into the community and walking the streets to meet their neighbors in Cherry Hill.
Buividas said his campaign had been a great success up to this point. The campaign trail, though, had not been entirely smooth.
Public records, obtained from the Township of Cherry Hill, showed late property tax and sewer payments for a business property he is listed on at 907 Berlin Road and his residential property on Brian Drive.
Buividas said he took responsibility for his late residential payments. He said, in his work as an attorney, he has good and bad months financially.
“When I do fall behind, I catch up. The economy is tough on everyone. I’m just like my neighbors in this economy,” Buividas said.
Earlier in the month, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, D-Hoboken, chose to deliver news about his Sustainable States Act of 2011 at the Camden County Environmental Center Parks Department building in Cherry Hill.
And Menendez had good reason to unveil his new national legislation in the township. After all, the legislation is based on the Sustainable Jersey program, a certification program for municipalities in the state that want to make their communities more sustainably, as well as promote environmental consciousness for future generations.
Cherry Hill is one of 74 municipalities in the state to receive certification. In total, 348 of the state’s 566 municipalities are registered members of the program.
“(The legislation) is inspired by the incredible work of Sustainable Jersey. Cherry Hill is an outstanding participant in Sustainable Jersey and a model of how a community can take a proactive role in making their community more sustainable,” Menendez said.
By the end of the month, Platt delivered his final budget to the town council, looking back and sharing his thoughts on a decade of municipal budgeting.
The budget included a preliminary local tax levy of $45.1 million, about a $400,000 increase from the previous year.
The DCA local finance board, at the end of the month, gave the go-ahead to the Merchantville-Cherry Hill commission to move forward with its study of municipal consolidation.
Back in March, Platt announced the township’s plans to erect a permanent memorial in remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
After months of fund raising and construction, the memorial was unveiled on Sept. 11.
The township, through the work of its firefighters, was able to acquire a 3-foot-long piece of steel from the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
The WTC steel was prominently utilized in the memorial.
“I am extremely pleased with what our emergency response organizations have devised to honor and remember the events and victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy. I believe this monument will serve as a beautiful, heartfelt addition to our community’s landscape,” Platt said at the announcement of the memorial.
The township also braced for Hurricane Irene that blew threw South Jersey, dumping nearly six inches of rain on the region, taking down trees and power lines, as well as flooding many area roadways.
Cherry Hill reported numerous local roads that were impacted by downed wires and trees. During the storm, Route 70, Route 38 and Haddonfield-Berlin Rd. were closed, at times, due to flooding. Residential streets were also impacted as well.
All major roads in the township were re-opened soon after the storm.
Meanwhile, Platt offered his final thoughts on the 2012 budget before asking the council to adopt the $64.5 million plan at a Sept. 26 council meeting.
Platt said he was proud to present his final budget.
The Cherry Hill Mall has come a long way since Oct. 11, 1961, the day it opened to the public as the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi River, said Lisa Mangiafico, member of the Cherry Hill Historical Commission and co-author of “Cherry Hill: A Brief History.”
The mall celebrated its golden anniversary with refreshments and a photographic display of the mall’s history.
The Solid Rock Worship Center, which was no stranger to controversy this year, again found itself right in the middle of another hot topic in town.
Regis Academy, which was founded by Pastor Amir Khan of the center, was just one of four new charter schools in the state to receive approval from the state Department of Education.
Khan said the organization had filed for charter approval the year before, but was denied by the DOE.
The school would be the first of its kind in Cherry Hill, although a charter was granted to another organization in 2006. The school planned to open in September 2007, but a lack of funding kept it from opening.
This comes at a cost to the school districts involved. All charter schools in New Jersey are publicly funded and in Cherry Hill, the school district reported that it would have to set aside about $1.9 million to support the new school, according to preliminary DOE numbers.
Reusche and Platt had made clear their opposition to the school.
“We believe our children receive a quality education within our 19 schools across our district,” Reusche said. “Where is the need?
Opposition continued to persist in Cherry Hill, as school district administrators and board of education members continued to meet with elected officials and administrators from neighboring school districts to discuss the implications of a charter school in the township.
The Cherry Hill Board of Education solicitor, on behalf of the four districts involved, filed an appeal of the charter school.
The district has maintained it’s not opposed to the specific charter school, but rather, the flawed approval and funding processes, along with the issue of educational need in the district.
Later that month, in an effort to dispel rumors circulating about the charter school slated to set up shop next fall, Khan called a meeting to keep residents in the know about the impending arrival of the Regis.
The agenda of the meeting at Solid Rock was clear. Charter schools give parents and students educational options, and that was the message Khan maintained throughout the meeting.
“The original intent and purpose of charter schools was all about innovation and school choice,” Khan said.
The meeting, which was well-attended by residents, congregants, advocates and opposition, also featured testimony from a handful of speakers, including parents from Cherry Hill and Voorhees, the president of the NJ Charter School Association, pastors, community activists and charter school supporters.
But some members of the public were skeptical about the figures presented. At the end of the meeting-turned-town hall gathering, Khan opened the floor to the public for questions.
Alan Ehrlich, a Cherry Hill resident who said he supports charter schools in areas where there is a need, warned attendees about the implications the charter school would have on the school district’s budget.
“The (Cherry Hill) school budget this year was destroyed. Teachers will have to be laid off and programs cut,” Ehrlich said.
Meanwhile, Cahn was elected to succeed Platt, maintaining more than three decades of Democratic control in Cherry Hill.
Cahn surpassed Republican Buividas in the election, by a margin of 58 to 42 percent, with 14,424 total voters.
By month’s end, Fire Chief Robert Giorgio announced that he would be stepping down for the position, but would continue serving as the assistant fire chief.
“I’ll agree it’s not the most traditional approach,” Giorgio said. “There’s some shock about this happening. But this is a very adaptive group of people. Our responsibility is to serve the community first.”
His career began when he was 15 and signed up to volunteer with the department.
By the time he was 21, he became a career firefighter. Prior to his appointment as chief, Giorgio served as fire inspector, captain, station commander, battalion chief of training and safety and assistant fire chief.
December ushered in a time of celebration for the township, as it honored 50 years of being called Cherry Hill with a celebratory council meeting and festivities.
The night opened up with a rendition of the National Anthem, as performed by the All Cherry Hill Chorus.
After the council meeting, Lisa Mangiafico, member of the Cherry Hill Historical Commission and co-author of “Cherry Hill: A Brief History,” reminded residents about the township’s deep roots and once-agricultural landscape.
Local government officials and dignitaries congratulated Platt on his years of dedication to the township.
“You always kept the interest of citizens in mind first and foremost,” said county freeholder director Louis Cappelli Jr. “The greatest legacy you’re going to leave is the dedication to your citizens.”
Platt thanked the community for supporting him over the years in all his public roles.
“You are, without a doubt, the most important piece of this puzzle. Without you, there would be no Cherry Hill; you are the lifeblood of this community. It has been my pleasure to serve as your mayor for the last nine years, and it has been my honor to be a part of this 50th anniversary year,” Platt said.
And Platt finally bid adieu to the township he loves so dearly and left the next mayor with some words of wisdom.
“I really loved being mayor. It’s about helping people — that’s the most important thing. It’s not a popularity contest. You do what you think is best for everybody. We tried to do the best we could,” Platt said.
“Cherry Hill is the greatest community in the state of New Jersey, Our residents are the best. Listen to them and make the right decisions for them in the future.”