The year in review: Looking back in Gloucester Township

The year has been tumultuous for the residents of Gloucester Township, as COVID loomed over government business and led to the cancellation of several events. It impacted the school districts the most, as the township’s schools and the Black Horse Pike Regional School District learned to adapt.

The business of government

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Gloucester Township held its annual reorganization meeting in January, when Orlando Mercado and Tracey Trotto were unanimously reelected president and vice president,  respectively. Council also decided that this year, council workshop meetings will be moved to the same day as the first council meeting of each month, one hour before the regular session. 

Council and residents had recurring discussions, one of which involved the land sale of  Lakeland Complex on Turnersville Road to the township housing authority for the development of senior affordable housing. When an ordinance was introduced in January, residents questioned why there hadn’t been progress on the affordable housing and why, after the land was sold to the housing authority in 2012, the township was now selling it back for the same purpose. 

Business Administrator Tom Cardis explained that the land needed to be in the township’s name to receive funding and that the township did try to develop it, but because of a change in how funds were distributed throughout New Jersey, it lacked  funds to go through with the plan.

Other topics discussed during the year included the usefulness of the Market to Affordable Program, issues of transparency, the possibility of notifying residents about new developments outside of the 200 feet required notification range, the history of increased taxes and the possibility of attending meetings with the Economic Development Corporation.

In April, the township unveiled a new Paverart walkway to celebrate Autism Awareness Day in front of police headquarters. The piece has the police logo in the center with the words “support, inclusion, acceptance” on the edges of its circle. 

Council approved the 2021-2022 budget in May after several meetings of residents who requested more diligence in reviewing the financial plan budget and ways to   save. While no panel or formal subcommittee was formed, council members Dan Hutchison, Carolyn Grace and Michelle Winters met with each other; Cardis;and CFO Christie Ehret to review the fiscal plan.

“This truly is a responsible budget,” Hutchison remarked.

The township scholarship committee held its 24th annual 5K and One Mile Walk in June, the first in person event the committee had held in over a year.

In July, resident Brian Burns asked about the possibility of purchasing land from Dottie Murray and Helen Hayes to preserve open space. Throughout the year, he continued to push the township on the issue and asked for updates from council.  

Slowly but surely, progress has been made. In November, Solicitor David Carlamere reported that the agreement to preserve the space had been sent and was probably on its way.

September marked the 326th year of the township’s incorporation, celebrated by  local groups and organizations who submitted items of significance. A group photo was placed in a time capsule that will be unearthed in 2070.

In October, the township held its 7th annual Citizens Appreciation Ceremony to acknowledge individuals who have given back to the community. This year, 25 residents were recognized for their service in organizations and clubs like the Rotary, the Gloucester Township Girls Athletic Association, the VFW, American Legion Post 281 and Kiwanis.

“You and all of the others whose names are up here in these plaques are truly role models in our community,” Mayor David Mayer said. “Thank you for being a role model and taking on that role and responsibility.”

While the event was a celebratory one, the town received backlash from residents for holding it while other traditional activities like Mainstage’s pumpkin festival and   Trunk or Treating were cancelled due to COVID concerns.

Council President Orlando Mercado addressed the cancellations at the Oct. 13 council meeting, where he explained he did not feel comfortable holding Trunk or Treat due to the large number of people who had attended in the past and because kids under the age of 12 were unable to be vaccinated at the time. The pumpkin festival was cancelled due to lack of volunteers and resources.

In late October, township and state officials gathered at the municipality’s police training center to break ground on the GEMS solar park, a 25-acre project that will be built over the cap of the former landfill and remediated Superfund site at the intersection of Hickstown and New Brooklyn-Erial roads. It is estimated to offset greenhouse gases by 4,313 metric tons of carbon dioxide by producing 6 million kilowatt hours per year. 

In November, Mayor David Mayer renewed his position as mayor during the township elections, as did incumbents Michelle Winters, Carolyn Grace, and Dan Hutchison. 

COVID in education

While 2020 was full of uncertainty, 2021 proved to be a year of trials. Both the township and Black Horse Pike Regional School districts navigated in person learning with remote instruction as they tried to continue traditional events such as prom. 

Gloucester Township schools kicked off the year by swearing in three board of education members to new three-year terms. Mary Ann Johnson and Mary Jo Dintino were both reelected, and the latter was also elected president. Ellen Reese was elected after serving with the board in previous years.

At the beginning of the school year, township students were learning remotely, and in January, the board of ed extended fully remote instruction until Feb. 15 due to the three consecutive “high risk” reports from the state Department of Health.

The state eventually allowed each school district to determine learning status  throughout the year, meaning they evaluate the student body, facilities, staff, environment and other issues.

In March, the township district revealed plans to add Friday as an alternating, in person learning day for two cohorts, rather than having students in school for five half days. A number of parents protested and pushed for five days of in person learning after the CDC updated guidelines on social distancing that recommended 3 feet of distance  rather than 6.

But Solicitor Dan Long explained to parents and educators that even with the CDC’s new guideline, combining cohorts would make it difficult to keep 6 feet of distance outside the classroom.

At the May board of ed meeting, parents and community members discussed the impact of COVID. Several parents expressed their frustration with having to choose between their kids wearing masks all day or doing remote learning, deemed less effective for teaching. At other meetings, parents argued that masks are a hindrance to breathing and can interfere with the child’s ability to read emotions. 

Bus driver Joanne Arcaini-Heine shared her experience on masks and the impact of  COVID positive students.

“When a child tests positive for COVID, and they’ve exposed their drivers and their aides and we have to quarantine for 14 days, we’re not being paid for it,” she explained. “It wasn’t by our choice to quarantine. 

“Not being paid makes it difficult for some of the people that I work with,” she added.  “… Some of them only have this board of education check coming in. They can’t survive being out 10 days, two full school weeks, and not being paid.”

Tensions over the mask mandate exploded at the August board meeting, held before vaccines were available to kids. Signs had been posted that said, “Masks required before entering” and masks were provided for those who didn’t have one.

Prior to the session’s start, the room was full. While many attendees were masked, there were others who refused to abide by the request to wear one, even when told the meeting would not begin until they complied. The situation escalated when the police arrived on scene to diffuse the situation and enforce the mask mandate. 

“You are on public property,” Police Chief David Harkins warned. “This is a school, and they have determined that you have to be wearing your mask here. This is an executive order.”

Shouting on both sides erupted and the police helped usher everyone out of the building. The situation was later addressed by board member Elliott Wilson during the rescheduled virtual meeting in September. 

“For those people who came last week, I hope you can figure out a way to understand that masks are a singular part of a broad array of tactics to combat this insidious plague that has now, after so long, truly come for our children in a manner not seen before,” Wilson noted.

Later in September, teachers and staff from the Gloucester Township Education Association rallied for a fair contract prior to the next in person board meeting.

Association President Patti McBride explained that the union has been negotiating a new contract for the previous eight to 12 months but had yet to reach an agreement. 

“[For the teachers], that means no increase in salary. That means they’re questioning health benefits, questioning time,” McBride explained. “It means that they don’t value us; they don’t respect our organization.”

Superintendent John Bilodeau responded that the board had not left the negotiating table and had dealt successfully with two of four unions. 

“I would suggest that people in this room, if they haven’t been fully informed on what is being stalled, turn and ask the (foundation) negotiating group what is being stalled,” Bilodeau said.

During the meeting, the superintendent also shared that due to one nurse’s resignation, a substitute nurse would be shared by Glendora and Gloucester Township elementary schools as a temporary measure until a full-time nurse could be found.

In November, Linda Gilch, incumbent Anthony Marks and Kia Lipscomb received the most votes of nine candidates vying for board seats.

High school in a pandemic

The Black Horse Pike district began its third phase of reopening and remote learning on March 29. Phase two involved having two cohorts attend in person for four half-days a week, with Wednesday as a fully remote day. The new phase combined cohorts to enable five half-days a week, eliminating the synchronous virtual Wednesday instruction. The plan still allowed students to choose remote learning.

 The district board felt there were too many obstacles presented in a full day schedule at the time, the biggest concern being lunch. The plan acknowledged that in some classrooms, it might not be possible to maintain 6 feet of social distance.  

In April, residents and district staff defended the need for an athletic director at each school, upon the ADs receiving Rice notices that said the governing body would discuss their employment at an upcoming meeting. 

Superintendent Dr. Brian Repici shared that the board was reviewing the position as part of a strategic planning process to identify the goals of the board and the community. While no action was taken, the position was seen as an overwhelming success by the community.

In May, Triton Regional High School senior Noel Friedlander and her friends protested a restriction that limited prom-goers to pupils within the district and prevented Friedlander from going with her significant other, a student at West Deptford High School. She had previously emailed Repici and was turned down due to capacity limits at the prom venues and the potential danger of too many people with unknown health histories.

“All of our schools have sports that play other teams without masks on,” Friedlander argued in response, and the district eventually made the allowance.

Later in the month, the district partnered with Inspira Health Network to provide Pfizer vaccines to students and their families. Repici reported that 1,031 people had registered by then, the majority of them students.

Community members banned together in June after a post circulated on Facebook that claimed some board members wanted to remove Repici as superintendent and replace him with Board President Michael Eckmeyer. The post was refuted by Solicitor Dan Long, who clarified that Repici is on year three of a five year contract. Eckmeyer denied having any conversations about replacing him.

Many residents spoke out against Eckmeyer, who was previously suspended and resigned from his position as supervisor at Sterling High School for violating its sexual harassment policy by sending emails and texts with sexual overtones to a female subordinate. Eckmeyer ran unopposed and won the board presidency in 2019. Though information on him had been available prior to the elections, it was still news to many of the residents who demanded he step down. 

In September, Timber Creek Regional High School held an outdoor assembly for staff and community members to reflect on their 9/11 experiences and unveiled a memorial. The 20th anniversary of 9/11 also marked the school’s two-decade anniversary. The memorial features two beams recovered from the World Trade Center and the words “Never Forget 9/11” facing outward.

The Black Horse Pike Regional School district, like others across the state and nation, was affected by the bus driver this year. In response, the district purchased four new buses using funds from the previous year and added a fifth using other money. But the shortage continues.  

In November, incumbents Jennifer Storer and Jerry “Jay” McMullin were reelected to the district board of education, along with Shana Mosley. 

The lighter side

This year, the township found new and interesting ways for residents to stay engaged with one another, as COVID concerns led groups to find creative virtual programs. 

In March, the township held “GT’s Got Talent,” its first virtual talent show. 

Timber Creek High’s choice to hold its spring musical virtually also came in light of last year’s events, when the school’s performance of “Urinetown” was cancelled two weeks before opening night.

This year, it presented “Something Rotten” virtually for three nights, both online and through a viewing in the parking lot. Students began rehearsing together virtually in December of last year, but gradually, they were able to do the show in person. 

“It was a lot better when we got together in person, because we got to ask for help and get a hands-on feel for it,” explained Julia Nelson, a junior. “There was a point in time when a few people got the virus or had to quarantine just for being in contact,” she added. “And we had to go back to that for a few practices. But other than that, we were in person.”

People in the news

The Sun in January recognized Timber Creek High design and technology teachers Mike Smith and Steve Arena who created 20 desks for students in the district to help with studying practices at home.

“As teachers, we were seeing kids on Zoom attending class while laying on the floor, laying on their bed, laying on their couch,” said Smith, who is in his 11th year at Timber Creek.

“They were oftentimes sitting in these open areas without a real workspace, and some were even working in the same room with multiple siblings where none of them had a desk to use.” he added. ‘So we knew this was a need for them.”

Retired Pitman police officer and volunteer firefighter Earl Young celebrated his 100th birthday in August by being honored for his lifetime of service by Congressman Donald Norcross’ office and officials from Camden County, Pitman and Gloucester Township.

 The sporting life

The past year was special for Gloucester Township, with teams and individuals excelling despite the challenges.

In March, Timber Creek’s girls’ basketball team, the Chargers, won the Tri-County Conference Tournament.

 “Before the season even started and we were allowed to actually go inside, we had been practicing outside in the cold, with our masks on, in that 20-degree weather,” said Amaya Burch, a junior on the team. “We wanted to do those things that other teams probably weren’t doing, and that included getting in shape and working on plays together outside, even if it was 20 degrees out there.”

After a 6-0 start to the year, Timber Creek finished the regular season 8-3, with back-to-back losses to Kingsway near the end of the season, one by only three points.

Ultimately, the Chargers ended up beating the top three seeds in their bracket to earn the Tri-County Conference Bracket A title.

Highland Regional High School’s Floyd Whitaker capped off his historic high-school track and field career in June at his final Meet of Champions by capturing his second consecutive triple jump title.

Triton Regional High School’s football team went from a 0-2 season to a 7-2 going into the final week of the regular season in October. A mid-season switch at quarterback led to a National Division Title for the Mustangs for the first time in 10 years. 

In Winslow Township junior tennis player Gabby Robinson secured singles titles in both the Camden County Open Championship and the National Division Olympic Tournament. Robinson attributed part of her success to making the best of life during COVID, playing tennis more frequently following increased virtual learning.

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