Washington Township Year in Review Part 2

Despite COVID, residents maintain support for community

Municipal news 

Martino Cartier, owner of Wigs and Wishes speaks to the audience during the 10th Anniversary Gala for Wigs and Wishes on Saturday, Nov 14. This year alone, Wigs and Wishes donated 25,000 hair pieces to women across the U.S., with even more distributed across the globe. The organization was worried they might not get to hold their milestone gala due to COVID-19, but Cartier’s pastor insisted the nonprofit use the church and the show went on.

The first project of 2020 included a bond to replace the outdated Washington Township firehouse. The township fire district held an election in February for a nearly $10 million bond to replace an outdated firehouse, make improvements to its other locations and appoint two fire commissioners. The bond passed, and residents with an average assessed home of $200,000 would expect an annual increase of $32 in taxes. 

“It’s not a want, it’s a need,” said Washington Township Fire Commissioner Frank Stella about the replacement of the Whitman Square Fire Station. “We have to replace the Johnson Road firehouse. It’s at the point where the fire district either replaces the station or we have to make some hard decisions to shut it down.” The remodeling is now underway.

Community caretaking continued to be an important focus of the township police department. In March, the department started to discuss a program to help families across the community feel a little safer when they get into their vehicle. Starting on April 1, the department made autism occupant stickers available to families. The stickers could be placed on the front door or a car window, alerting police to the presence of a resident on the autism spectrum.  

Since the police are often first responders to emergencies, the chief noted, officers must have a working knowledge of autism and its wide variety of behaviors. Police have also had special training to help recognize behavioral patterns and have additional sensitivity when engaging with people who have autism.

Despite the pandemic, the mayor and council were able to provide good news to residents of Washington Township in late April. For the second straight year, residents heard Mayor Joann Gattinelli tout the same news during her annual budget address. 

“I am pleased to announce that the 2020 budget I have presented to council will have a reduction in taxes,” she said.

The budget included a reduction in the municipal tax rate for the second straight year. Residents with an average assessed home of $231,928 saw a reduction of $15.67 in their municipal taxes.The township kept municipal taxes flat in Gattinelli’s first two years in office in 2017 and 2018,  and has now reduced the tax rate for the last two years. 

According to the resolution council passed, the budget totals $42,983,176, a small increase from last year’s $42.2 million general budget. The township had recently undergone revaluation, leading home values to increase for many residents. The average home in the township increased in value by more than $20,000 this year, from $210,425 to $231,928. 

The 2020 budget included a number of capital improvements, including the continuation of the township’s road program. The township also planned for various improvements to Washington Lake Park.

Before the start of fall, the township offered new ways for the community to reach out for help through two new addiction resources.  Both programs started in August and offered help through My Friends House Family Counseling, an outpatient program for addicts in Woodbury Heights that facilitates treatment through therapy, specialists and other programs. 

The Straight to Treatment program allows those struggling with addiction to walk into the township police department and be set up with a counselor from My Friends House.

The Road to Recovery initiative takes place in municipal court. It is designed to help residents struggling with addiction who have been arrested and sentenced for crimes related to their drug habit, such as  shoplifting. The program has three steps: application, agreement and authorization. Once the steps are completed, the addict can make his or her way through recovery. Both Straight to Treatment and Road to Recovery are financed through two grants called Operation Helping Hand, negating the need for taxpayer money to support the programs. 

Later this fall, the past was brought to life through the opening of a time capsule that had been buried for 25 years. Students of former Thomas Jefferson Elementary School teacher Leona Aronovich buried a treasure chest of items on Oct. 12, 1995, and made a date for Oct. 12, 2020 to retrieve it.

After the opening, the township made an announcement about a second time capsule project planned for 2021. “Kids need to see this,” said Jeff Pollock, a former principal at both Thomas Jefferson and Hurffville elementary schools. “They need to learn what it was like back in the day and have something to grab onto. All of these artifacts, the material, they can help tell what it was like back then at that time.”

During a council meeting at the end of October, Economic Development Consultant Nancy Mozzachio gave a report about the township’s business revitalization efforts. 

Shopping center owners are investing in capital in facades and signage, new developments are under construction, long-abandoned properties have been purchased and retrofitted or have plans to raise and rebuild and multiple land purchases and redevelopments are in the planning stages,” Mozzachio said. 

An eye on education 

Students and faculty walk onto Tom Brown field during the in-person graduation ceremony at Washington Township High School on Wednesday, Aug. 12. Most graduations or canceled or postponed due to COVID-19, Washington Township High School decided to hold two outdoor ceremonies for the graduating seniors who wanted to participate. The students and audience were asked to wear masks and keep socially distant.

Before COVID threw schools for a loop, Washington Township High School was able to hold some of its annual events, including the 7th annual Pop Experience show and Monzo Madness fundraiser. 

After COVID caused schools to close and many of the district’s events to be canceled, some students began to pick up hobbies that would help those in need. Shortly after the start of the pandemic, student Samantha Beury began making medical masks and giving them to neighbors and friends who work in the medical field. When asked if she ever imagined her passion for sewing would lead her to making a difference during a history-defining pandemic, she simply said, “Not at all, no.

“I was just sewing for fun,” Beury said. 

On May 4, Gov. Murphy announced all New Jersey schools would  close due to the pandemic. The news was disappointing for Dana Zelechoski, mother of Washington Township senior Deb Reinhardt,  and Julia Flamma, mother of senior Nick Flamma. The two saw firsthand how COVID negatively altered what should have been  among the happiest times of their children’s lives. 

Zelechoski and Flamma decided to start a campaign for parents across the township to have signs celebrating their graduating students. The campaign took off, with signs for 104 of the high school’s 537 seniors produced during the first order in April. A second order was sent to the printer with at least 32 more families ordering signs.

In April, The Washington Township Board of Education passed its operating budget for the 2020-’21 school year. During that meeting, the board signed off on a package totaling $146,553,602 in the general fund and $150,220,462 for the entire budget — an increase of just over $4 million from the previous year’s $145.9 million.

Included in the complete appropriations was $2.43 million in a special revenue fund and $1.235 million in debt service. The local tax levy, totaling $88.68 million toward the general fund, represents a 2 percent increase ($1.739 million) over the previous academic year. That means for an average assessed home value of $230,000, taxes for township property owners are expected to increase by $5.18 per month, approximately $62 for the year. Taxes increased roughly $43 for an average home valued at $210,358.

The board also signed off on more than $840,000 in safety-related capital projects, such as $450K toward HVAC and flooring replacements at several district schools; physical plant upgrades at the elementary, middle and high-school levels; and $37.4K for the installation of security cameras at the high school. 

Along with prom, spring sports, graduation and a senior trip, the 20th annual Senior Service Day was among pandemic casualties in the  high school curriculum. In a role reversal, the community gave back to the Washington Township Class of 2020. In the spring, Martino Cartier, who runs the charity Wigs & Wishes, received a phone call from Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf about the devastating blow to the senior class. This phone call led to McDonalds, Carmen’s Deli, Pat’s Select, Liscio’s Bakery, Angelo’s Pizza, Rita’s Water Ice, Chick-Fil-A and Tony Soprano’s Pizza pledging to deliver food or gifts to the graduates, at an estimated total value of $170,000. Township high school Principal Jonathan Strout made 30-plus trips per day during the month of May to see his seniors off properly.

Even though the graduation would not be the same, two students were still looking forward to a specific graduation announcement. Twins Colin and Tristan Ly were named co-valedictorians, the first time in more than 50 graduating classes of Washington Township history. 

“People always made it a point to ask, ‘Who’s beating each other right now? Who’s first? Who’s second?’” Tristan said. “As school went on more and more, I realized how much I disliked the competitive aspect and how people always tried to push each other down and be competitive.”

In the end, Colin and Tristan didn’t need to worry about who would be first. After the twins finished within three-hundredths of a point of each other in grade point average, Strout informed them they would become part of history.

Gloucester County’s 14 public high schools sent a joint letter to New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin on May 12, asking for assistance to advocate for graduating seniors and allow them to “participate in some form of an in-person graduation ceremony.”

 “I’m in complete agreement,” Sweeney said about the letter. “I think it’s unfair to take these opportunities away”.

The township also filmed a virtual graduation where the senior class, one at a time, would walk into the high school’s performing arts center, don caps  and gowns and walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. Like other schools, the township broadcast the video on the originally scheduled graduation night. 

Washington Township High School held two in-person graduation ceremonies on Aug. 12. But though more than 100 students were anticipated for the events, only half attended. The school offered a virtual graduation ceremony on June 18 and had a drive-by event for students to pick up their diplomas on June 22, 23 and 24.

The plan for reopening schools was the main topic at the township’s BOE meeting on July 29. The original plan was a hybrid schedule, with half of students in school on Monday and Tuesday and the other half using remote learning. The remote learning students would be in school on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be a remote learning day for all students. 

Bollendorf explained the board would rely on parents to monitor their children’s temperatures daily and to keep them home if they showed any virus symptoms. Unfortunately, education plans remained fluid throughout the year due to the never ending changes in the pandemic. 

At their work session on Aug. 17, the board announced positive survey statistics on school reopening. Fifty-three staff members in the survey cited concerns about going back to school, but  responses from over 600 teachers indicated they were ready to teach in the fall.

The board addressed many of the cleaning questions by referring to the reopening plan on the district website. Personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies were constantly being ordered, the board said, but the current stock would last through September. 

“I will not shy away from pulling the plug and going remote in those areas if we could not provide safety for our children,” Bollendorf said.

But by the beginning of September, the schools were still not ready to start the year, leading to an all-remote opening. Bollendorf decided a few hours before a board meeting to make the first two weeks of school completely remote. School still began on Sept. 8, but was all remote through Sept. 21.

The delay of in-person learning stemmed from issues with school HVAC systems that provide air filtration, heating and conditioning throughout the school buildings. The CDC suggested schools use a high-quality MERV filter to help filtrate airborne pathogens more efficiently. Only 25 percent of schools in the district had systems that were able to handle the suggested filters, while 75 percent could not.

By the end of October the board of education finally had a plan to bring students back to school.

“The plan is called the Road Back, which means the plan can be fluid based on the progress you might make, the environment you live in within your community and any COVID-19 cases going up or down,” said Jack McGee, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

There were three phases to the first plan that allowed students and teachers to become comfortable with synchronous learning by having students log in to the classroom, with limited capacity for interaction. The last phase had students log in and interact as if they were in the classroom on any other school day.

In the school music world, after the cancelation of many events,  township high school Director of Bands Calvin Spencer used the ongoing pandemic to safely attract, not isolate, seven other South Jersey area marching bands on Oct. 24 in a non-competitive Marching Band Festival fittingly called “The 2020 Covid Classic.”  

For several of the bands, an appearance in The Covid Classic marked their first performances of the fall. “This was a great night for the performing arts as our WTHS students, as well as students from the other participating high school marching bands, were able to showcase their talents,” Spencer said. 

Fall events affected by the pandemic included annual charity events Gobble up Hunger and the township toy drive. Determined organizers adapted events for safety.

“The biggest thing we take on is Gobble up Hunger,” said Bunker Hill Middle School FutureAct advisor Heather Finn. “We collect thousands of canned goods and turkeys … Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a wrench in that this year.”

Gobble Up Hunger usually consists of collected canned-food items placed in baskets and delivered to families in need. Instead, FutureAct decided to raise money to buy fruits, vegetables and sides and have The Estate at Monroe cook Thanksgiving meals for around 200 families in need. 

In December, high school junior and senior officers were holding onto hope for their annual toy drive on Dec. 8 and 10, after the district announced schools would remain closed until the day before the event. Fortunately the drive welcomed help from across the community and became the most successful in its 25-year history.