Mt. Laurel Sun’s 2019 year in review

A collection of some of the biggest stories The Mt. Laurel Sun covered in 2019.

With 2019 nearly at a close, many among us are taking time to reflect on the year that was. Here are some of the biggest stories The Mt. Laurel Sun covered in 2019:

Incumbent Republican Councilmember Kurt Folcher selected as mayor for the year at annual reorganization meeting

The Mt. Laurel Township Municipal Building was packed with members of the public early in January for the swearing-in ceremony of two new members of council and a new mayor.

With every seat filled well before a 7 p.m. start time, members of the public resorted to standing along the walls of the courtroom, and even then, many were relegated to peering through the courtroom’s open double doors to view the ceremony from the building’s lobby.

Yet once the meeting finally did get underway, the crowd watched as newly elected Democrats Kareem Pritchett and Stephen Steglik were sworn-in to their seats on council, and incumbent Republican Councilman Kurt Folcher was selected and sworn-in as mayor for the year ahead.

Pritchett and Steglik were sworn-in by Democratic New Jersey 7th Legislative District Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, while Folcher was sworn-in as mayor by Republican Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield.

With that, Mt. Laurel Township Council officially moved from a council where all five members were Republicans to a bipartisan council where Republicans hold three seats to the Democrats’ two seats.

That split stems from the election of Democrats Pritchett and Steglik the previous November, who unseated former Republican Mayor Rich Van Noord and Republican Deputy Mayor Dennis Riley.

The Mt. Laurel Democratic Club has referred to the election of Pritchett and Steglik as “historic,” noting that Pritchett is the first African-American to serve on council, while Steglik is the youngest person at age 28.

Harrington Middle School students break charity’s record for number of socks collected for homeless

Early in January, nearly 1,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students at Harrington Middle School managed to collect 5,633 pairs of new socks, breaking the world record for a single donation to the nonprofit Joy of Sox, which coordinates with outreach groups across 33 states to distribute socks to the homeless.

Officials from The Joy of Sox visited Harrington to present students with an official “world record banner” as officials collected the school’s generous donation.

According to school officials, the collection began as a way for the four houses at Harrington to earn points against one another in a fun way during the new “Spirit Week” activities at the school earlier in the school year.

While there were certain days to wear a specific color shirt or dress in superhero clothes, students were also asked to donate socks leading up to and throughout Spirit Week, to the point that October became “Socktober” at the school.

Leading the charge was the Harrington Middle School Student Council, with advisors Tracy Burlson and Kathryn Mitchell.

While Mitchell said organizers thought students might collect about 500 pairs of socks, no one was prepared for the more than 5,500 pairs that would eventually come to fills bags atop of bags in a large closet at the school.

“This was our first year collecting for Joy of Sox,” Mitchell said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

Students from across Lenape Regional High School District honor Martin Luther King Jr. with March for Martin at Lenape High School

Much like when King envisioned a day when “all of God’s children” would have the opportunity to sing with a new meaning “let freedom ring,” the entirety of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was ringing throughout the halls of Lenape High School for students to hear during the school’s annual “March for Martin” event in January.

Hosted once again by the Lenape High School African American Club, the March for Martin invited students and staff from student organizations across the Lenape Regional High School District to march in unity through Lenape’s halls while King’s words were broadcast throughout the building.

Just two of the many students on hand for the event were Lenape High School seniors Myía Borland and Makayla Berry, who each served as officers in Lenape’s African American Club.

The two said the march demonstrated the need for students to come together to address issues of racial injustice that still exist in the world today.

“In the world as a whole, not everything is perfect,” Boreland said. “(King’s speech) still applies to today.”

Berry echoed those sentiments.

“The goal of the march is to let everyone…remember why Martin Luther King Jr. gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and why it was so important and how it affects us all today, from our classrooms to outside of school,” Berry said.

School districts in Lenape Region band together to fight cuts to state aid

Six of the Lenape Regional High School District’s eight sending districts joined together with officials from the high school district in February to plan a course of action to reverse what officials described as “drastic” cuts in state aid funding.

According to officials at a community forum at Shawnee High School, cuts will negatively impact the K-8 districts in Evesham, Medford, Shamong, Southampton, Tabernacle and Woodland, along with the Lenape Regional High School District itself.

All together, officials said these local districts stand to lose a combined total of about $24 million by the 2024-2025 school year.

Present at the February meeting was LRHSD Superintendent Carol Birnbohm, along with each of the superintendents of the local school districts in the Lenape region affected by the cuts.

Superintendents took turns at the meeting outlining the potential causes of the cuts, how communities can fight back and what would happen on the local level if the cuts were not reversed.

According to Evesham Township School District Superintendent John Scavelli Jr., these cuts are a result of the implementation of provisions in the School Funding Reform Act from 2008.

Although the act has been in place since 2008, until last year, districts were “held harmless” if the funding formula utilized by the act found that a district was to lose funds.

However, now the formula is being enacted, which, according to Scavelli, is mainly based on the increases or decreases of a district’s enrollment, the personal wealth of those living in a district and property values (ratables) of the municipality where a district is located. 

Looking just at the Evesham Township School District, and based on the factors of the funding formula, Scavelli said that logically his district should expect a shift in state aid funding, since his district has faced a drop in enrollment since its peak year of 2003, while the wealth of Evesham’s residents and property values have risen in that time.

However, he questioned the magnitude of the decrease to which Evesham is facing – an estimated $9 million by the 2024-2025 school year – and he noted there are many other districts with circumstances “completely different” to those of Evesham, yet those districts are facing reductions in aid as well.

“There’s really no common denominator as we’ve seen it to figure out exactly why districts have been affected,” Scavelli said.

Scavelli also noted that while the cuts had already begun to affect districts in the current 2018-2019 school year, the cuts are scheduled to increase in future years until they’re fully implemented.

Township enacts new rules for residents setting out trash for collection

In March, Mt. Laurel Township officials amended the portion of the township code dealing with trash collection, enacting more stringent rules to have residents place their regular, weekly trash in “proper” collection containers, in addition to requiring residents to set or remove the containers at their curb sides in a more timely manner.

As outlined in the township’s newly amended code, council now requires residents only place their waste alongside their curbs in receptacles with “tight-fitting covers.”

According to the amended code, the requirement comes as trash not placed in secure containers is “susceptible to access by wild animals and creates environmental issues when blown from its location into fields and water management control systems.”

The amended code also states residents cannot place any receptacle on any street, curb, sidewalk or alley earlier than two hours before sunset on the day prior to collection, and residents have up to 12 hours after the time of collection to remove any empty receptacles.

Officials noted that, logistically, residents wouldn’t have to worry about a scenario where the township’s zoning officer would be inspecting an area to determine a receptacle has been removed in a timely manner, as outlined by the ordinance, until at least the next day after collection.

With these new rules in place, the township’s zoning officer now has the power to send letters to those who don’t comply, eventually gaining the power to issue a violation.

As noted by officials in the past, violations would require residents to appear before the judge in municipal court, who could then issue a fine until any issues were rectified, with different fines set for different violations.

The new rules stemmed from the complaints of residents living along areas such as Willow Turn, Chaucer Road and Chaucer Court in Mt. Laurel’s Larchmont neighborhood.

Such residents had been speaking at Mt. Laurel Township Council meetings with claims that neighbors had been known to leave trash in their front yards or even in the streets.

Residents had also claimed that certain neighbors’ recycling cans have continuously sat in front properties filled with a mix of garbage and recycling items, as collectors wouldn’t take away the mixed waste.

Mt. Laurel Township bans smoking on municipally-owned property

A Mt. Laurel Township Council meeting in May saw council pass an ordinance to ban smoking at all municipal buildings and grounds, as well as parks owned by the township.

According to the ordinance, any person found guilty of violating the new ordinance may be subject to a fine anywhere between $250 and $1,000, and/or subject to 30 days of community service or up to 30 days incarceration in county jail.

The ordinance came as a suggestion from the Mt. Laurel Green Team and will help the township qualify for further certifications through the Sustainable Jersey program, which provides financial incentives for municipalities that pursue sustainable and environmentally friendly measures.

In addition to those reasons, the ordinance also outlined the township’s belief that reducing secondhand smoke will improve public health and help reduce the amount of littler created by smoking products.

As defined by the ordinance, municipally-owned spaces are broken into two categories: municipal buildings/grounds and public parks.

The ordinance specifically included, but was not limited to, Mt. Laurel Township’s municipal building, police station, municipal court, community center and library, as well as any parking areas or grass lands that surround those buildings.

As defined by the ordinance, parks include any property Mt. Laurel Township owns or maintains for the purposes of active or passive recreation, including, but not limited to, playgrounds, sports fields, spectator areas and adjacent parking facilities.

Republican majority on Mt. Laurel Township Council makes attempt at non-partisan election

In April, Folcher directed the township’s solicitor to draft an ordinance that, if passed by council, would put a referendum on the ballot in November asking residents to decide whether the township should move its council elections from November to May.

For townships that elect to hold their municipal elections in May, state law dictates the contests become non-partisan affairs, meaning the candidates cannot run under a party banner or have a political affiliation listed by their name on the ballot.

The three members of council’s Republican majority had previously spoken in favor of having Mt. Laurel’s township solicitor research the possibility of moving elections.

The idea was first suggested by a resident at a township council meeting several weeks prior and since that time, some members of the majority on council said they were concerned that municipal elections in November have become entangled with national and state issues that may not necessarily affect Mt. Laurel Township on a local level.

“This change would give all Mt. Laurel residents a say and allow residents that aren’t affiliated with one of the major parties to run for council and have a chance of winning,” Republican Councilman Irwin Edelson said in previous comments made to The Sun.

The two members of council’s Democratic minority, who were elected in November of last year, opposed moving elections and described the idea as an attempt by council Republicans to control the outcome of future elections in their favor.

Pritchett and Steglik also argued that holding a separate election outside of November would cause a drop in turnout and increase costs for the township.

In addition, in comments Pritchett made to The Sun, he noted that although he unsuccessfully ran for a seat on council in 2016 against all three of council’s current Republicans, no member of council publicly called for a change in the township’s municipal elections after his initial loss.

Pritchett said it was only after the election of two Democrats in 2018 –including himself as an African American – did a discussion on potentially moving elections begin.

“Democracy is very important so we can be able to choose – and it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the nation – we still can go to the polls and choose who we want to represent us,” Pritchett said.

Steglik said he wanted to echo his fellow Democrat in that he believed voters deserve to know who agrees with their values when they enter a voting booth.

“I think largely this is a really sleazy way to hide your party affiliation [Republican], in a year that’s not going to be beneficial to them,” Steglik said. “I’ll be honest, it’s a little embarrassing that we have to continue this conversation.”

The debate continued, and in May, the three members of council’s Republican majority passed the first reading of an ordinance that would place such a referendum on the ballot for voters to decide in November. Council’s two Democrats voted against the measure.

The ordinance passed in a split, 3-2 decision in June.

Council republican’s efforts took a blow in July after Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, acting on behalf of Gov. Phil Murphy, who was out of state, signed into law Assembly Bill 5404 changing the requirements for referendums that change the form of municipal government.

The bill, which had been introduced in May by Burlington County Democrat Assemblywoman Carol Murphy of Mt. Laurel, changed the threshold for passing an ordinance to create a referendum for changes to the form of a municipal government by requiring approval from at least two-thirds of the municipality’s elected officials.

Township officials in favor of the referendum ultimately abandoned their efforts following this development and no such referendum appeared on the ballot in November.

A new era begins in Mt. Laurel Schools with the launch of full-day kindergarten

For the first time ever, Mt. Laurel Schools introduced full-day kindergarten for the 2019-20 school year starting Sept. 5. 

The changes enacted to the kindergarten program went beyond just adding hours to the school day. Superintendent George Rafferty said the program includes a modern curriculum focused on creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.

“What we were intentional about not doing was pushing down higher level grade work into kindergarten and making the child’s first experience in school highly academic,” Rafferty said. “Many of the children developmentally are not ready for that kind of enhanced academic environment. They more have to focus on the social, emotional development of a child and developing a lot of the pre-academic knowledge that they need as a basis to do that higher grade level work.”

A significant portion of the kindergarten school day is now devoted to free-choice centers. Several free-choice centers were set up in each classroom, each featuring a different activity. Students are able to rotate among the centers and choose which centers they’d like to explore.

All of the free-choice centers contain activities with creative education tasks allowing students to better develop social, critical thinking and teamwork skills. All different subject areas are featured in the center. Some examples include an art center with a drawing or painting activity, a math center featuring a number or measurement game, a dramatic play center and a literacy area where students will be tasked to spell words using letters that they find.

“The idea is that children, at an early age, learn best through exploring in a creative environment, engaging with each other socially, that’s how they develop language, that’s how they develop socially,” Rafferty said.

“The kind of thing we don’t want to do is show them pictures of what they should be doing,” Rafferty added. “We want them to create and innovate.”

Council hears from residents concerned over EMS station project and new digital signs

At an October meeting of the Mt. Laurel Township Council, several members of the public addressed officials during public comment to express their disapproval of plans to erect monument signs featuring digital displays along roads throughout the township.

The signs came as part of a deal struck with developer Catalyst Experiential, who approached the township and offered to purchase land and pay for the construction of a new EMS station on Route 73 in exchange for permission to erect their monument signs at three locations within the township.

Since 2016, the township has been facing state pressure to relocate the site of EMS Station 368, which, in its current location, has been found in violation of Green Acres rules. According to officials, per the state, the land may only be used for recreational and conservation purposes.

Seeing no option to undertake the costly project that did not include raising local property taxes for residents, township officials opted for the Catalyst Experiential partnership.

“This is a situation where the town is forced to make lemonade out of lemons,” Folcher said. “The state put a gun to our head and this was an opportunity that we felt could save the town from raising taxes and get ourselves a state-of-the-art facility.”

During public comment, council heard from several residents who felt blindsided by the decision or simply disapproved of digital signs coming to their area and the potential effects they could have on local traffic. 

“I just feel if I come to the town council meetings I should kind of know what’s going on and if I attend regularly I should know generally what’s going on in town,” said resident Ed Cohen, who felt uninformed about the issue at hand despite being a semi-regular attendee at meetings.

“It seems like this is a situation where the people of the town didn’t really seem to have a lot of communication coming from the council,” said resident Brian Sharp. “It seems like the people of our town weren’t really informed about this going on and there are a lot of questions.”

Council in response cited a public planning board meeting where details of the project were discussed as well as previous council meetings which included discussion of a redevelopment application and a presentation by the developer.

Local animal hospital launches fundraiser for new K-9 unit

For several years now, the Mount Laurel Animal Hospital has provided for all the veterinary needs of the Mt. Laurel Police Department’s K-9 unit, consisting of Officer Chris O’Prandy with his K-9 partner Gunner, and Officer Wilmer Santiago with his K-9 partner Nina. In October, the owners of the local animal hospital decided to extend their services to the department even further by launching a fundraiser with an aim to expand the capabilities of the unit by way of a third K-9 to be trained as an explosives detector dog.

The department’s two K-9 units, Gunner and Nina, are trained as police service and detector dogs. On the job, they may be called on to assist with locating a missing person or a suspect attempting to evade apprehension, sniffing out illegal narcotics or simply acting as a bridge for officers to engage with their community.

This new unit will be a useful tool when it comes to expanding what potential threats the department is prepared to respond to. With the right training, this K-9 will be able to complete sweeps of public buildings such as churches, schools or municipal facilities, and alert officers to the presence of any firearms or explosives within the area.

“You hope to never have to use a lot of these tools, but the more tools we have, the more services we can provide to the community,” Public Information Officer Kyle Gardner said.

Earlier in the month, the local animal hospital launched a GoFundMe page, mlahvet.com/bombdog, bearing a title that makes its mission clear: Bring the First Bomb Dog to Mount Laurel. In just its first few weeks, the page raised more than $500. Ultimately, the hospital hopes to reach its overall goal of $75,000. To date, the page stands at $3,056 in donations.

According to veterinarian and co-owner of the Mount Laurel Animal Hospital, Dr. Robert Mankowski, the facility has always maintained a positive working relationship with its local police force.

“They’re our neighbors right down the street. They’ve always helped us out if we’re holding an event. We have a good relationship,” said Mankowski.

In discussions with the department, the hospital became aware of how much is required of the two dogs it currently has, and of its desire to expand the program despite lacking the funds to do so.

The majority of the costs of maintaining the department’s K-9 program are covered through donations and fundraising events put on by the department itself, such as its annual K-9 5K race. Currently, the cost of adding an additional unit exceeds the grasp of the program’s budget alone.

“We’re at the point where we want to see the program grow and the only way to do that is to have the support of the community,” said Gardner. “It’s great to have the animal hospital behind us because they are such a well-known hospital, they’re right in our hometown and they’re just a great support network.”

Mt. Laurel Council designates redeveloper for Route 38, Ark Road and Fostertown Road redevelopment area

In November, council passed a resolution designating Delco Development LLC as redeveloper for a portion of the redevelopment zone known as the Route 38, Ark Road and Fostertown Road redevelopment area.

During the meeting, representatives from the Willingboro-based real estate firm, including President Tom Juliano and attorney Richard Hoff, presented the firm’s tentative plans to develop a portion of the redevelopment area with residential and commercial units, including 120 age-restricted rental units.

The portion of the redevelopment area discussed at the meeting lays along Route 38 and consists of approximately 67 acres of land.

According to Hoff, the redevelopment area was first designated as such in 2018. The first iteration of the redevelopment plan called for a mix of commercial and residential units and has since been amended to include age-restricted affordable housing units.

“That was something that had been identified as a potential goal of the redevelopment plan at the outset but it was never really incorporated into the plan itself. The plan being proposed tonight does in fact include affordable age-restricted units,” Hoff said.

The rest of the development plan consisted of a mix of townhouses, multi-family residential units and lots reserved for future commercial development.

According to Hoff, he has been working with the township’s economic development team to identify potential tenants for these commercial-use lots. He described this portion of the plan as “a work in progress.”

“We have some good leads on what we believe will be compatible commercial uses along the frontage of the property,” Hoff said. “Obviously this development will go through the normal channels of planning board review, but at the redevelopment stage we wanted to come here tonight to present the council with just the overview of what we anticipate the final product to be.”

According Folcher, the township’s affordable housing obligations mandated by the state is the driving force behind this project and its location.

“Mt. Laurel is the tip of the spear for this; every town in the state of New Jersey is going to have to deal with this affordable housing component,” Folcher said.