Moorestown schools may not have been in session during the summer, but that didn’t stop the school district from coming to the forefront of the news during that time.
Negotiations between the Moorestown Board of Education and the Moorestown Education Association took center stage during the summer and came to an end just a few days before the start of the school year.
A week prior to that, Superintendent Brian Betze resigned, adding another storyline to the school district’s eventful summer.
The township was hard at work during 2013 as well. A long debate saw a pay-to-play ordinance passed, then later repealed. Moorestown completed the long process of becoming certified by Sustainable Jersey, and the year concluded with the opening of the newly renovated North Church Street Recreation Center.
Here’s a look back at some of the top stories from Moorestown in 2013.
Moorestown teachers get new contract
At times during the summer, negotiations for a new teacher’s contract between the Moorestown Board of Education and the Moorestown Education Association appeared to be contentious. However, the two sides managed to reach an agreement just prior to the start of the 2013–14 school year.
The contract originally expired on June 30. At a Board of Education meeting on June 25, numerous teachers gathered, wearing red to show solidarity before the board.
MEA President Lisa Trapani asked the board why a contract had not been reached, especially since the Board of Education had reached a settlement earlier that month for an outsourced custodial contract.
Board member Kevin O’Sullivan said the school district wants to establish a “fair and financially sustainable contract for the district.”
Reports surfaced that the stalemate was affecting high school students. Some parents said teachers were refusing to write letters of recommendation for colleges because of the contract situation.
Movement on a contract continued through the summer with little progress. Health care remained the big sticking point between the two sides. The two sides were opposite ends when it came to how much teachers should contribute to their plan.
“Under the contract that expired June 30, the board of education takes seven times the risk of the employee. If health care goes up by $1 million per year, the employee pays $120,000 and the board of education pays $880,000,” O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan hinted that salaries and other benefits would have to be cut to pay the increasing health-care costs.
“We could either raise taxes by 4 percent or more every year, which is highly unlikely, or cut $1.1 million out of the budget. This will happen every other year as health-care costs continue to consume a larger share of the budget,” he said.
Trapani remained encouraged that the groups would teach a settlement prior to the start of the school year.
“Up until the last round of negotiations, the MEA and the board of education always reached a settlement before the start of school. It is, and always has been, our goal to reach a settlement before school starts.
Hopefully, the Aug. 5 meeting will result in a settlement,” Trapani said.
The two sides met for the first time with a state-appointed mediator on Aug. 5, but again the two sides could not come to an agreement. With the mediator not available again until Oct. 2, there was uncertainty as to if an agreement could be reached prior to the start of school.
However, following nine hours of talks on Labor Day, the two sides reached a tentative, three-year contract that was later approved by the Board of Education.
O’Sullivan said both sides made concessions and compromised, producing “a deal that both sides can live with.”
The deal allowed the district to avoid a repeat of two years ago, where the teachers worked an entire school year without a contract.
Pay-to-Play ordinance passed, then repealed
An amended pay-to-play ordinance divided Council and was ultimately repealed after many discussions that spanned from the summer into the fall.
Council passed the pay-to-play amendment in August by a 4–1 vote, with Councilman Greg Newcomer casting the only “no” vote.
The amended ordinance changed the maximum contribution for professional business entities to council candidates from $300 to $2,600, among other changes for contributions toward party committees and political action committees.
Newcomer believed the increase in contribution levels would eliminate the Council’s attempt to increase political transparency. Mayor Stacey Jordan disagreed.
“We wanted to simplify the ordinance. That’s the simple truth of it. We do what is best for this town,” Jordan said while listening in on the meeting via phone.
Newcomer recommended that council instead set maximum limits of $100 per year for all contributors. Democratic Party member Mark Hines also spoke at the meeting, saying the new law was “not in the interest of citizens. It’s in the interest of political parties alone.”
Shortly after the ordinance was passed, a petition that included 1,393 signatures was filed with the Moorestown township clerk. Residents who opposed the changes to the ordinance signed the petition.
In September, pay-to-play came to the forefront of council once again. Jordan asked the Council to consider repealing the new ordinance. This came after Gov. Christie and state Senate President Steve Sweeney reached an agreement to mandate a political contribution policy throughout the state.
“I thought we were going to be ahead of the curve,” Jordan said.
Jordan remarked following the Sept. 9 council meeting that the entire council was in support of repealing the ordinance.
That process was put into motion on Sept. 23, when council passed on first reading an ordinance to repeal pay-for-play. The vote was 3–0, with Councilman Phil Garwood absent and Councilwoman Victoria Napolitano abstaining because she had not yet decided if repealing was necessary.
Newcomer said he was happy to see the ordinance repealed on first reading and wanted council to enter a discussion about a new ordinance in the near future.
The ordinance was officially history on Oct. 7, as the council voted unanimously to repeal it on second reading.
Moorestown Recreation Center opens with no fee
With the newly renovated North Church Street Recreation Center holding its grand reopening on Dec. 7, a hot topic about a fee to use the rec center was sparked at a Nov. 18 council meeting.
Councilman Phil Garwood spoke of a possible resolution that would institute a $10 rec center membership fee for each child. Once the fee is paid, the child would be issued an identification card that they would use to get in and out of the building.
Carew said money from the fee would help offset the cost of the center.
“When we instate a $10 fee, none of us like to do it, but it’s better than not having a rec center at all,” Jordan said.
Some residents were not happy that a fee was being discussed. Charles Pratt felt it was important for the kids in Moorestown to have somewhere to go and felt low-income families would not be able to afford the center.
“I know my parents would not be able to afford it,” Pratt said. “The kids need to go there. The ones of low-income, the at-risk, need somewhere to go.”
Council ended up passing an ordinance to set membership requirements for the recreation fee in December, but made the decision not to enforce a fee for 2014.
Children who join the center must still register and obtain an identification card, which Newcomer said will help recreation officials serve the residents’ needs best.
“That way, you know whether you’re meeting service needs or maybe do more to meet service needs,” Newcomer said. “It’s good to have people registered.”
The ordinance left council the option to charge a fee to use the center in future years through the passage of a resolution.
Township sells sponsorship rights for fields
One of the ways Moorestown Township Council was able to bring in extra funds was through selling naming rights and advertising at its athletic and recreational fields.
The ordinance was passed on May 6 after parameters were set as to how large the advertising would be and how much it would cost businesses to purchase the space.
“This is going to be the first of its kind in New Jersey, where the township would actually control [the program],” Carew said.
The ordinance had the township and athletic clubs splitting the revenue 50/50.
Naming rights for fields would be negotiated for five to 10 years. A minimum bid of $5,000 for five years was set for smaller fields and a minimum bid of $35,000 for 10 years of a turf field.
Field banners for sponsorship from June through Dec. 1, 2013, were $400 for most fields and $600 for turf fields. The banners would hang on the fencing and face the spectators.
The consensus by council was that the new system would help bring it extra money to help pay for upkeep in the township.
“The program is a great benefit to our town as it will provide a perpetual revenue stream to the town and our sports communities. In the end, it’s another example of how this great community came together to do something that is truly unique,” Deputy Mayor Chris Chiacchio said.
After the sponsorship program was in effect for just a week, the township had already raised $20,000. Carew said he hoped to raise close to $100,000 in field naming rights and between $50,000 and $75,000 for the banners.
Moorestown’s journey to becoming certified sustainable in 2013 came to a satisfactory conclusion in December as Sustainable Jersey gave it a Bronze Certification.
Moorestown’s Green Team Advisory Committee started the process in 2012 and had unveiled a number of initiatives in that time to reach that certification, according to committee chair Catherine Ward.
Ward said the committee made its submission to Sustainable Jersey in June. The Green Team received its submission back the following month with suggestions on how to reach bronze certification.
One of the moves the township made was through adoption of a resolution on Aug. 1 to include an Environmental Resource Index to the Conservation Element of the township’s Master Plan. The index serves as a map of the township’s significant environmental featured.
In September, the Green Team sent in another submission. This time, the team was granted the Bronze Certification, opening the door for Moorestown to receive grants from Sustainable Jersey and corporations and businesses that refer to Sustainable Jersey as a baseline.
“Our organization is proud to have attained the Bronze Certification through Sustainable Jersey,” Ward said. “This recognition is a result of the dedicated effort of our individual team members, as well as the group’s collaboration with other organizations in the community. Our team’s goal is to engage with a diverse group of township stakeholders through a variety of projects in order to promote the growth, health and vitality of Moorestown while protecting and enhancing the township’s environment for today and future generations.”
Municipal taxes increase
After Mooretown Township council was presented with budget options that could have increased by as much as 9 percent, the township went forward with just a 1.5 percent increase for 2014.
Township Financial Manager Tom Merchel presented four options for the 2013 budget to council in early March, with each version showing how township taxes would be affected beyond 2014.
Council went forward with the plan that had the lowest tax increase for 2014, but could potentially have the most damaging long-term effects, according to Merchel’s presentation.
“I am a huge believer in not over using unsustainable revenues to keep taxes down,” Carew said.
The plan that council decided to go with featured a gradually larger tax increase beyond 2014. At the end of 2016, $1.33 million in surplus is expected.
Plans for dog park fall through
In February, Moorestown Boy Scout Troop 44 member John Matthews came forward to council with a plan to add a dog park at the township’s John Pryor Park.
Matthews proposed the idea as part of an Eagle Scout project. He felt that a dog park would allow residents to take their dogs off leash in a safe environment without ruining other part of the park.
“This obviously isn’t a good thing. It messes up the sports fields and it’s also not really safe for the dogs. I thought it would be a good idea to create a dog park for these people to have their dogs run around off their leash and give them a place to do these things that would not really harm any other part of the town,” he said.
Council liked the idea, but the cost of the project and the location got in the way from the beginning. Matthews estimated that the project would cost between $10,000 and $15,000 for a contractor to put up fencing.
Carew told Matthews that if the contractor’s proposal was more than $14,187, the contractor would have to pay prevailing wages and the cost would go up.
“Anything you can do to keep that number below $14,187 would make your life a whole lot easier,” Carew said to Matthews.
Not long after Matthews presented the idea to council, the location of the park was changed. Residents from the John Pryor Park area voiced complaints about the plan, and the township’s Open Space Committee decided to change the location of the park.
In the meantime, Matthews tried to raise funds through events and other projects. However, in October, plans for the dog park were officially scrapped.
A number of reasons were given for canceling the project. There were issues with the infrastructure of a number of locations the township looked at. In addition, the maintenance costs were too high, and Matthews wasn’t able to raise quite enough funds to offset the growing expenditures of the project.
“We really tried to help and bring this along,” Moorestown Director of Recreation Theresa Miller said.
School taxes increase
Concerns about the Mooretown school district’s budget and tax increases were raised in an April meeting.
In March, the Board of Education approved a tentative budget that included a 1.61 percent tax increase.
The proposed increase was addressed at an April 17 meeting by a number of teachers.
Trapani said the public was not properly informed about the tax increase and its effect on the schools.
“The impact of it couldn’t be fully researched, so people who came to the budget forums and read what was printed were in the full belief that this was the budget that was going forward,” Trapani said.
The tax increase was adjusted as the budget was decreased from $67.6 million in March to $66.9 million in April, lowering the tax increase for residents. This concerned South Valley Elementary School teacher B.J. Lemaire.
“The less the board is budgeting, the less that we will have each year going forward,” she said.
The school district’s tax levy increase was the first in three years, according to business administrator Shugars.
Superintendent Betze resigns
Stunning news arose from a special meeting of the Board of Education on Aug. 28. After returning from executive session, the board voted to accept the resignation of Betze and appoint Shugars as acting superintendent.
Betze’s resignation officially took effect on Dec. 31, with the outgoing superintendent placed on a leave of absence for the remainder of 2013. Board of Education president Don Mishler said that Betze’s leave of absence totaled approximately $165,000. Betze had served as superintendent for the Moorestown School District for more than a year, taking over the post in May 2012.
The Board of Education immediately began the search process after accepting Betze’s resignation.
“Informally, we’ve already started going through our contacts,” Mishler said.
The search for the district’s next superintendent is still ongoing as the calendar turns to 2014.
Dave Robinson honored by Moorestown schools
Moorestown received news of a huge honor early in 2013 as Moorestown High School alum Dave Robinson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The announcement was made in New Orleans just prior to the Super Bowl in February. Robinson went down there with his son, where they watched the announcement of the newly inducted Hall of Famers made on television.
“When he was reading the names off, I didn’t even pay attention,” said Robinson. “He was reading the names off and I was counting.”
Robinson was depressed after the fifth name was called, but that turned to happiness as his name immediately followed.
He received the honor of standing with all of the other 2013 inductees at the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
After his official induction ceremony in August, Robinson received a hometown welcome during Moorestown football’s season opening game on Sept. 12. The team held “Dave Robinson Night” in honor of the Hall of Famer.
The ceremony included the retirement of Robinson’s №89, which he wore while playing for the Quakers in the late 1950s.
“It was the right thing to do for his hometown and alma mater to honor his accomplishments and his life,” Moorestown High School athletic director Neil Rosa said. “Everyone wanted to be a part of this. Former teammates were calling and neighborhood friends were calling. Everyone was extremely cooperative. They just wanted to be with Dave again.”
Robinson spent more than an hour before the game that night signing autographs and posing for pictures for a packed crowd. The reception that he received by his former high school was tremendous.
“This jersey will be the one that is most important to me,” Robinson said to the crowd. “I’ve had a lot of big moments in my life, marrying my wife, the birth of my sons, winning two Super Bowls, but nothing can top being honored by your hometown.”