If there was a theme in 2013 in Mt. Laurel Township, it was that residents wanted their voices heard.
Two of the bigger stories that took place in the township involved concerns brought about by residents. In some cases, residents were satisfied with the conclusion, such as the Mt. Laurel Public Schools’ changing of the school calendar to accommodate Rosh Hashanah. In other cases, residents weren’t completely satisfied, as was seen when Council amended its parking ordinance in February.
Before turning the page to 2014, let’s take a look back at the top stories for Mt. Laurel in 2013.
First day of school changed in Mt. Laurel
Mt. Laurel Board of Education came under fire over the summer as parents voiced their concerns about the first day of school coinciding with Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 6.
Normally, being absent for a religious holiday isn’t an issue, but parents were concerned with the holiday coinciding with the first day of school.
“My son is worried. ‘How can I miss the first day of school? I won’t know where to go off the bus, I won’t know who my teachers are.’ That’s why I am hoping that this change will be made,” Deborah Hochberg, resident and mother of two children enrolled in the district, said.
The school district was resistant to making the changes at first. Board members were concerned about pushing the school year even further back in June, to the point where it may interfere with summer vacations.
Superintendent Antoinette Rath also said student absences on the second day of Rosh Hashanah were generally low when looking at numbers from previous school years.
Hochberg did not agree with the board’s reasoning.
“I’m stunned that they would be more concerned with kids missing the last day of school rather than the first. I think it is well known that nothing happens on the last day of school,” Hochberg said.
A month later, the Board of Education reversed its decision, opting to move the first day of school back to Monday, Sept. 9 to accommodate Rosh Hashanah.
The changes were announced after the school district received a lot of correspondence from parents about the original decision.
“We’ve received a number of calls, emails and letters asking to reconsider our initial decision, and we thank the community for their input and concern,” school board president Margaret Haynes said to open the meeting.
The calendar changes were passed by a vote of 5–2, with board members Diane Blair and Marc Jones voting against the change. Both of them though the board was crossing a line by making the calendar changes.
“I think we’re crossing a line. We’re doing something for religious reasons only,” Blair said. “I don’t think it’s my place.”
Despite the disagreements from Blair and Jones, many of the residents who attended the meeting were pleased with the final response.
“I was pleased with the decision to move the start of school to Sept. 9. I was very proud of the Mt. Laurel community for working together to present the issue to the BOE. The decision made me proud to be a resident of Mt. Laurel,” Hochberg said.
Some Mt. Laurel residents were unhappy upon the passage of an amended parking ordinance in February by Council.
The amended ordinance prevented vehicles over four tons from parking overnight in designated residential areas.
The ordinance posed a problem for families who own recreation vehicles. One Mt. Laurel resident, Andrea Fuss, said the ordinance should include a three-day window so residents could load or unload their vehicles at home without a problem.
“They have requested, and I am also requesting on their behalf, that if you choose to move forward with the provision of this ordinance, you provide a three-day window for people like us that are campers,” she said, adding sometimes it is difficult to unload the camper and transport it to the location where it is stored.
Councilman Jim Keenan re-assured Fuss, saying the ordinance isn’t to go out looking for one night violators, but rather to go after vehicles that are parked on the streets of residential areas long-term.
Police Chief Dennis Cribben echoed Keenan’s statements to Fuss.
“We want to stop the long-term parking of these types of vehicles on our streets because of safety hazards and to free up some parking spaces for the residents that want to park next to their house,” Cribben said, adding if the ordinance gives a three-day window, it would create a loophole.
“We don’t want to prohibit your activities but we do need an ordinance for those who take advantage of these situations with their boats and trailers and campers,” Mayor Linda Bobo said. “That’s what we are trying to address.”
The New Year started with a big announcement, as a Wal-Mart was official approved by the Mt. Laurel planning board. The 89,000 square foot store was approved for construction at Route 73 and Fellowship Road.
The announcement came with very little opposition raised by residents after a group of people had protested to Mt. Laurel officials about the construction of the store in the summer of 2012.
Township Manager Maureen Mitchell said no changes were made to the preliminary plan the board approved in December.
“It’s still the same layout,” she said, adding the parking lot needed additional conditions to curving.
There were a few residents in attendance at the meeting; all voiced their support of the project just before the planning board unanimously approved the property.
Despite the approval of the planning board in January, the project is currently on hold and construction has yet to begin.
School taxes increase
Mt. Laurel Board of Education approved a budget in March that increased the tax levy by 1.85 percent for the 2013–14 school year.
The board passed the budget on March 26. Nothing changed between the tentative budget and the final budget approved in late March.
The tax rate increased by 6.5 cents to $1.72 per $100 of assessed value, according to business administrator Robert Wachter. There was a very slight increase in state aid, with the district receiving $18,141 more in state aid.
The amount residents would be taxed was up in the air in March as the school district was unsure whether tax rateables would decrease in the township.
“Rateables are stuck at this point. We do not expect them to increase and we hope they don’t decrease,” Wachter said.
The school budget did not include any big projects. Instead, a focus was put on improvements to security, curriculum and technology.
A slightly lower tax increase also took place at the Lenape Regional High School District. The $150.4 million budget included 1.79 percent increase on taxes from the previous year.
Along with Mt. Laurel, the bulk of the Lenape district’s taxes comes from the township.
“This changes every year,” Board Vice President David Stow said. “The four basic characteristics that come into the tax are the changes in equalized value, the changes in rateable, the changes in regional enrollment and the assessed value of average homes. If you see a big change in any of those four, it’s probably going to mean something’s going to happen in the share or the amount that that township has to pay.”
State aid remained the same at $28.4 million. The budget was mainly the same as the previous year, with no programs or additional staff added.
“Our budget is a no programs added, no additional staff added — except for those staff members that are mandated for individual educational program students,” Stow said. “We have 13 students coming in from our sending districts with IEPs, and those IEPs require a paraprofessional, a sign language person or special education teacher.”
Municipal taxes increase
Like the school district, Mt. Laurel Council approved a budget that saw an increase in taxes.
The budget that was approved in March included a $26 increase in taxes, or $6,512 for the average assessed home of $142,200.
Ratables decreased in the township by $64.8 million, forcing the township to use more of its fund balance.
“We have to use more surplus in order to balance the budget,” Mitchell said, adding the township is using 85.8 percent of the surplus for 2013 compared to 92.6 percent in 2012.
Mitchell warned Council prior to the approval of the budget that the township should try to avoid using more surpluses than they generate in the future.
In passing the budget, the township was able to approve four union contracts through passage of a resolution. In December, Council would approve a new contract with the police union as well.
Chris Herren comes to the Lenape District
In hopes of reaching the students in the Lenape Regional High School District better on the topics of drug and alcohol abuse, former NBA player Chris Herren was invited to give two assemblies at each of the four high schools and a parents’ presentation.
The announcement was made in September shortly after the Lenape Regional High School District Foundation donated $29,000 to help pay for Herren to come to the district.
The reaction from Herren’s assemblies was very positive, according to administration, staff and students. A capacity crowd filled the Performing Arts Center at Cherokee High School to hear Herren’s story in person.
Herren’s message was that lots of drug and alcohol abuse starts when kids are in high school and only worsens if it is not caught early on.
“When I ask children in the schools I visit to draw a picture of what a drug addict looks like, they draw pictures of homeless people and prostitutes,” Herren said. “They see addicts on their last day, not their first. They don’t know about day one enough. It all starts with red (plastic) cups.”
The assemblies tied in with the school district’s Defy the Issue campaign, an initiative to help make the high schools a drug and alcohol free zone.
“Defy the Issue, a drug-and alcohol-free campaign, continues to be the focus of student-to-student presentations both within our schools and with the middle schools in the eight townships which we serve,” LRHSD superintendent Carol Birnbohm said. “And while it is impossible to attribute it to one thing, we can say with confidence that the message is being spread effectively throughout our community.”
Lenape District approves new teacher evaluations
Meanwhile, the way teachers were evaluated on job performance changed in the Lenape Regional High School District. In June, the state Department of Education approved a new teacher evaluation for the school district that complies with the TEACHNJ Act.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction Heather Xenakis said teachers will receive a rating ranging from highly effective, effective, partially effective or ineffective.
“We wrote our own evaluation tool. We had it approved by our board of education and the state DOE. There was a request for qualifications process, to which we applied, and were given approval. Very few districts were given approval to use their own tool,” Xenakis said. “We are proud to say that our tool, which was developed by teachers, administrators and district administrators, was a collaborative effort that we worked diligently on for over a year.”
The planned evaluations also included more classroom evaluation time of teachers. The new plan puts every teacher under evaluation for two full classroom periods.
The new teacher evaluation program was expected to save the district $15,000. The district originally planned to implement a costlier “off-the-shelf” program.
Crime up in first half of 2013
Thanks to a large number of burglaries early in the year, Mt. Laurel saw a spike in the crime rate early in 2013.
The Uniform Crime Reporting statistics showed that crime in Mt. Laurel increased by 11.1 percent in January through June when compared to the same six-month period in 2012.
Lt. Stephen Riedener of the Mt. Laurel Police Department didn’t express too much concern over the increase.
“The numbers tend to stay relatively close year-to-year so it is difficult to compare month-to-month. We’ve seen in the past that a three-month or six-month window may say one thing but throughout the year it balances out,” Riedener said.
Overall, violent crimes dropped across the board in the township. Riedener said the department’s implementation of a DDACTS system has helped reduce things such as violent crimes.
The DDACTS system helps the police department pinpoint which areas see higher crime rates in the township and are in need of extra patrols.
“DDACTS allows us to do more with less. Analyze where offenses are occurring, what are potential hotspots and assign officers to those areas accordingly,” Riedener said.
The police received another crime fighting tool in the fall as council passed an ordinance that required secondhand dealers and pawn shops in the township to record all transactions onto an electronic database.
Done in conjunction with many other municipalities in New Jersey, the new database is being used to help police quickly find stolen goods that thieves may sell to secondhand dealers to make some quick cash.
“If you have someone who’s pawning a lot of items every week, that raises a lot of suspicion,” Riedner said.
“The new database system is going to help modernize the whole process.”