Looking back: Mt. Laurel Year in Review for 2014

Everyone wanted to come to Mt. Laurel in 2014.

Gov. Christie held one of his town halls in Mt. Laurel in March. A black bear made a long journey into the township in June. AT&T pitched an idea to bring a cell phone tower to the township in 2014.

There were plenty of unique events and happenings across the township in the past year. Before seeing what visitors may make an appearance in Mt. Laurel in 2015, let’s take a look back at the biggest stories of 2014.

Black bear visits Mt. Laurel

An unexpected visitor captured the attention of Mt. Laurel residents for a few days in June.

A black bear spent June 16 and 17 wandering various neighborhoods in Mt. Laurel. He was first reported near the intersection of Mt. Laurel Road and Hainesport-Mt. Laurel Road.

The bear did not harm or pose a threat to any residents over the course of two days. School officials said the bear did not impede on any end of the year field days being held.

Mt. Laurel Police kept track of the bear, issuing Nixle alerts on its most recent whereabouts.

The bear also came out of hibernation on Twitter. A Twitter account named @Mtlaurelbear began talking to followers on Tuesday morning, announcing he was heading to the Birchfield development for a short swim.

“It’s great to be back in Mt. Laurel! Think I’ll stop by the Birchfield pool or pond today,” the “bear” said.

Bob Considine from the state Division of Fish and Wildlife said the sighting was the latest in an increased number of bear reports in Burlington County.

“I’d say it’s uncommon, but not unheard of,” Considine said of bear activity in the county.

The bear departed Mt. Laurel on the evening of June 17, continuing north to Hainesport and Westampton.

Gov. Christie comes to Mt. Laurel

Mt. Laurel played host to what became a very eventful town hall featuring Gov. Christie on March 13 at the YMCA on Centerton Road.

The event was stopped multiple times thanks to a group of Rowan University students who interrupted Christie in hopes he would answer questions on topics such as the Fort Lee bridge scandal and Hurricane Sandy relief. Six students were ejected from the event.

“We know he intentionally holds these town hall meetings in Republican majority towns,” said Patrick Oehme, a Rowan University sophomore. “He never gets heat during these meetings because they are during the week, so working class people can’t attend these meetings. He basically holds these meetings at times only his supporters can come to them.”

The students said they were not affiliated with any campus group or organization. They were simply a group of students who had similar concerns.

“I don’t really think Christie wants to hear the voice of young people,” said Leah Ly, a 21-year-old senior. “All of us just stand together. We’re a voice of the students.”

Outside the periodic disruptions, Christie received a warm welcome from those in attendance. He addressed questions from residents regarding school aid funding, rehabilitation for non-violent drug users and gun control.

At the end of the event, Christie used the protestors as an example, saying people need to start working together to get things done in state government.

“We need to convince our government to work together,” Christie said. “We need to start listening more to each other, let’s stop arguing.”

Cell phone tower silo

Residents in the Saratoga Farms development banded together in the summer to protest a proposed cell phone tower slated for construction near homes on Pimlico Way.

Cell phone carrier AT&T filed an application with the Mt. Laurel zoning board in May to construct a 140-foot faux silo containing a cell phone tower inside. The proposed tower would be within 100 feet of some homes.

Saratoga Farms resident Louis Rider has led an opposition group of more than 50 residents. He said there is no need for AT&T to construct a tower so close to homes when there are open parcels in other areas of the township.

“The tower will have a significantly negative impact on the character of our community and will reduce our property values,” Rider said.

Daniel Langen, a spokesman for AT&T, said the tower is necessary for AT&T to provide adequate phone and broadband coverage to its customers.

“Consumers in Medford, Mt. Laurel and across New Jersey are demanding more reliable and faster mobile phone and mobile broadband coverage, which is important for public safety, education, telecommuters and virtually every sector the local economy,” Langen said. “This proposed site is designed to meet their needs.”

Rider has worked more than 25 years in telecommunications and said AT&T already has excellent coverage in the area. He also proposed three alternative solutions. One is to place cell phone antennas along high-tension wires running through the area, just south of Saratoga Farms near Church Road. The others are new locations for the tower, either on Johnson’s Farm or across from Lenape High School at the intersection of Church and Hartford roads.

Even though AT&T filed the application in May, a hearing has still not taken place at a zoning board meeting. The hearing has been postponed multiple times. The next scheduled date for a hearing on the application is Feb. 4.

Open space tax debate

In the first year following the township’s revaluation, the average resident saw a decrease in their municipal tax bill.

However, many residents ended up paying more in open space tax.

With the open space tax rate frozen at 0.08 cents per $100 assessed value, residents whose home values increased in the revaluation also saw a big increase in their open space tax.

The average home in Mt. Laurel was worth $142,200 in 2013 prior to the revaluation. After the revaluation, the average home value increase to $236,952. The increase caused the open space tax for the average homeowner to go up $75.88.

Councilman Jim Keenan proposed lowering the open space tax to 0.06 cents to keep residents from paying a higher tax.

“Why don’t we, as a council, suspend the tax, suspend it by two cents without going to a referendum?” he asked. “I’d like to help out anyone I can in the township.”

Township manager Maureen Mitchell said a referendum would need to go on the November ballot to change the tax rate. She added the additional $2.2 million coming into the open space tax fund is needed to pay off existing debt.

“We have a debt,” Mayor David D’Antonio said. “We have a significant debt that has to be paid off.”

Council said they would look into putting a referendum on the November ballot to change the open space tax rate. A referendum was not discussed further, however.

Council election

Mt. Laurel Council will remain entirely Republican in 2015 as GOP candidates Dennis Riley and Richard Van Noord defeated their Democratic opponents Carol Murphy and Dan Rosenberg during the 2014 council election. The pair will take over seats held by Lynn Solomon and David D’Antonio, both of whom declined to run for re-election.

“I am immensely grateful to the residents of Mt. Laurel who have given me the opportunity to serve them on the township council,” Van Noord said.

“I was humbled by the outpouring of support I received from the residents of Mt. Laurel for our plan to do more with less,” Riley said. “Talking with voters across our town door to door helped to put our community’s priorities in full perspective.”

Both Riley and Van Noord promised to fulfill promises made during their campaign of providing tax relief through shared services and putting in safeguards against overdevelopment.

Van Noord promised to keep Mt. Laurel residents involved in all aspects of the town.

“Many of the best ideas of how to move our town forward will come from the people we serve, and I will ensure that our local government shares their priorities,” he said.

Education Summit on PARCC

More than 100 community members participated in a Mt. Laurel Schools Education Summit at Hartford School in May. The topic of the summit was on the PARCC test, a standardized assessment beginning in the spring of 2015.

The Mt. Laurel Board of Education decided to host a summit to better inform parents and residents about the test and come up with ideas to better prepare students.

Two major ideas came out of the summit. Many parents agreed the school district needed to better communicate the tests to parents. Some suggested having PARCC information sessions at each school. Others suggested including a column in the district newsletter or section of the district website with information on the test.

Parents and administrators also agreed school attendance needs to get better. Superintendent Antoinette Rath said students are in danger of falling behind because of excessive absences.

“Nearly 50 percent of our kids are absent six or more times a year,” she said.

Rath encouraged parents to get actively involved with their child’s education, explaining students’ need to understand the materials they are learning if they want to succeed on the PARCC test.

“Being able to memorize facts is simply not enough,” she said. “Google can do that for us.”

Lenape district ditches traditional midterms, finals

The Lenape Regional High School District announced a plan to replace mid-term and final exams with new, periodic assessments beginning in the 2015–16 school year. The 2014–15 year was the first without midterms and finals, leaving some parents concerned their kids would be left behind heading into college.

“I think we’d be doing our students a disservice,” parent Leigh Ann Erlanger said at the district’s board of education meeting in October.

The district’s new assessments will align with changes made in the district’s curriculum over the past five to six years. Superintendent Carol Birnbohm said the old assessments were still being used up until last year and didn’t align with what the students were learning. The focus of the curriculum revolves around problem solving, critical thinking and applying the learning material to real life applications.

“Kids are going to have to prepare for this and have to be responsible for what they learn,” Birnbohm said.

Some parents felt the district was getting rid of the exams in lieu of the PARCC exam. Birnbohm said it was not the case.

“PARCC wasn’t the impetus for the elimination of midterms and finals,” she said.

Teachers, administrators receive new contracts

Teachers and administrators in Mt. Laurel Schools both received new three-year contracts in the fall.

Mt. Laurel teachers began the school year on Sept. 4 with a new contract after the board of education and Mt. Laurel Education Association reached an agreement just after Labor Day. The agreement included a 7 percent raise for teachers over three years and a concession on health care.

“All of our meetings were progressive, and even points of disagreement were handled with open discussion and an exchange of facts,” said board member Diane Blair.

“The entire negotiations team is thrilled with the agreement we were able to reach with the Board of Education,” MLEA president Doug Bozarth said. “We feel we achieved a fair settlement given the current economic times and restrictions placed on such bargaining procedures.”

The Mt. Laurel Administrators’ Association reached an agreement with the board of education in mid-December. Their contract also included a raise in salary coupled with concessions made in health-care costs.

“We were pleased with the results of the negotiations,” said Mary Fitzgerald, president of the MLAA. “It went pretty well, and we got it done pretty quickly.”

Parents concerned about Mt. Laurel class sizes

A group of parents from Fleetwood Elementary came to a Mt. Laurel board of education meeting in September looking for answers to the large class sizes present in some first- and fourth-grade classrooms.

Parents said some classes had more than the district’s maximum of 23 students. However, the district did not add an extra aid to the class, spurring concerns of whether kids were getting enough individual attention.

“This is not something we’ve ever experienced before,” fourth-grade parent Jane Smith said. “It’s upsetting to me. Fourth grade is a tough year.”

Parent Bethany Pacheco said her first-grade student was in a class of 24. She said the class was filled quickly because of an influx of late enrollees at the school.

“People are moving in on Aug. 1 and are then registering for school,” she said.

The district said it would examine the policy and see if changes needed to be made in the future. To rectify the current situation, the board of education approved an additional aide for classrooms district-wide exceeding the maximum of 23 students.

Extended kindergarten comes to Mt. Laurel

The Mt. Laurel School District began an extended kindergarten program in the fall. The new program acts as a complement to the regular half-day class for kindergarten students.

Marie Reynolds, director of communications for the district, described the program as a loose format where students can learn material in subject areas they are interested in.

“It’s really effective, because they gravitate to the center that they find more interesting,” she said. “It’s not a curriculum like they would have in the kindergarten program.”

The district’s community education department runs the program. It is also tuition-based, keeping the financial burden of the program off the taxpayer.

The district was able to launch the program thanks to additional classroom space in its elementary schools.

“We are now able to move classrooms around enough that each elementary school can have one available room for the program,” Reynolds said.

Reaction from parents about the program was overwhelmingly positive. The demand for the program was so great, the district decided to host two sections of extended kindergarten at each elementary school.

Bulk trash headache

More than a year after Mt. Laurel changed bulk trash collection from once a week to twice a month, residents and managers from condominium complexes across the township gathered at a council meeting to discuss problems with the new program.

The main issue brought up at the meeting was the pile-up of trash accumulating at the complexes.

“We try to tell people if you clean, please hold your stuff until the pick up date, it can be appreciated,” said Dallas Heinemann, a resident at Le Club. “We need more. We need that third pick up a month.”

Ron Lonero, a trustee for the Ramblewood Mews complex, said the extra bulk trash laying around was causing safety concerns for residents.

“You can’t get to the dumpsters,” Lonero said.

Mt. Laurel participates in the Municipal Apartment Condominium Collection Service, or MACCS program for condominium complexes. Council agreed to take a closer look at the program. No action was taken as of the end of the year.

Mt. Laurel Library Maker project

Some of the newest technology for home and craft projects came to the Mt. Laurel Library in April, as the library debuted its “Make It at Mt. Laurel Library” program. The goal was to bring the library into the 21st century with new technology many residents do not have available at home.

“We’re looking to redefine the library as a place where making and learning can happen,” said Joan Serpico, the library’s manager for special projects.

The crown jewel of the new technology was a 3D printer. The Mt. Laurel Library was just the second in South Jersey to purchase the technology. The printer allows resident to print a 3D item using a modeling program.

The library also added simpler machines such as a button maker and a sewing machine. These new items are more advanced than the ones most people have at home. Serpico said the items were purchased to enhance existing library programs.

“It’s also kind of like those craft projects we’ve had forever,” Serpico said. “It’s very similar to that, only you’re just using something with a little technology thrown in.”

The library has held sessions where residents can try out these items. These sessions will continue in 2015.

Mt. Laurel superintendent named best in Burlington County

Mt. Laurel Superintendent Antoinette Rath received a special honor in the summer as she was named the Burlington County Superintendent of the Year for 2014.

Rath was surprised with a special ceremony during the board of education’s July meeting. Rath received a plaque from Michael Gorman, superintendent for Pemberton Township Schools, and Christopher Manno, superintendent of schools for the Burlington County Special Services District and Burlington County Institute of Technology.

“I was the person who always used to sit in the back of the room,” Gorman said. “She inspired me to sit in the front of the room.”

Rath has served as superintendent in Mt. Laurel since 2002. She was credited with launching a number of curriculum reforms, including the creation of the district’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs for grades five through eight.

Manno said many people working in education should look up to Rath as an inspiration.

“Toni is a role model to us in that she’s truly a member of the education community,” Manno said.

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