The Year in Review: Looking back at Mount Laurel

In Mount Laurel, 2022 was a year of firsts, people giving back to the community and celebrations. As COVID restrictions were lifted, the township guided residents back to a sense of normalcy with old and new events. The school district continued to keep students safe while  finding a cost-effective way to expand its preschool program. 

Government

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To kick off the year, Sen. Cory Booker administered the oath of office to the first African-American mayor in Mt. Laurel’s 150-year history at a council reorganization meeting in January. 

Kareem Pritchett gave thanks to his colleagues, township officials and residents for the opportunity to serve as mayor. He stressed the importance of being transparent with the public  and relayed his appreciation for their confidence in him.

“Mount Laurel, thank you for trusting us to govern your township,” he noted. “Continue to support us and let’s continue to have great progress in our township.”

The township held a special election in February for a pay-to-play ordinance that would limit campaign donations from companies who want to do business with the township. Official results showed 86.43 percent of residents favored the ordinance. 

At its regular meeting in April, council approved for the third consecutive year a budget with no  municipal tax increase. According to the township, municipal taxes for residents make up approximately 12 percent of the total tax bill, with the local tax rate at $0.352. County taxes account for 14 percent of taxes at a tax rate of $0.416. Regional schools take 25 percent of taxes at a rate of $0.763, and local schools account for 39 percent at a tax rate of $1.179. 

In an announcement release, Pritchett emphasized the township’s  delight at being able to approve a 2022 fiscal-year budget with no increases or cuts. 

“Township council and management are proud to pass a budget that presents no municipal tax increase, no cuts to services, and ensures the quality of life for residents,” he said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled that we are able to pass this budget for the taxpayers in town.”

Apryl Fox was sworn in as the fire department’s new EMS deputy chief at a March council meeting. She is the first female in that role and the first career female officer in the township. Fox has 20 years of experience as an EMT and recently served as the training division supervisor for Mount Laurel EMS.

Education

The township board of education recognized its 2021-’22 Governor’s Educators of the Year and announced the end of the school mask mandate at a February meeting.

The selection process for the Educators of the Year award begins after each participating school forms a committee of representatives – principals, teachers, parents, etc. – that accepts nominations from township students, teachers and community members.

Nominations for the award were reviewed by the committee and rated on six criteria, including expertise and collaboration with students. The winners are:

  • Countryside Elementary, Theresa Lynch\
  • Fleetwood Elementary, Jamie Heller
  • Hillside Elementary, Donna Waddell
  • Larchmont Elementary, Jennifer Grabowski
  • Parkway Elementary, Kelly Schew
  • Springville Elementary, Marla Wasserman
  • Mount Laurel Hartford School, Paul Devery
  • Thomas E. Harrington Middle School, Jennifer Gallagher

“You represent the best in all of your colleagues and peers,” School Superintendent Dr. George Rafferty told the winning educators. “On behalf of the board of education and myself, we want to thank you for what you bring to the classroom and what you do for the children.” 

The Burlington County Alternative School (BCAS) in Mount Laurel was named a 2022 National School of Character by character.org, a non-partisan organization of educators, researchers and business and civic leaders who provide global leadership and resources for developing character in families, schools, and organizations. 

The designation is the highest bestowed by the organization, and to be considered, a school must put in place a comprehensive approach that inspires students to understand and practice a set of core values that will enable them to flourish in all aspects of their lives .

BCAS Principal Joan Barbagiovanni noted her appreciation for the designation.

“As principal, I am proud every day of the students and staff at the Burlington County Alternative School,” she said. “The redesignation of BCAS as a National School of Character makes me particularly proud, especially when considering the circumstances surrounding these last few challenging years during the pandemic.

“In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. –  “Intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education,” Barbagiovanni added. “The staff and students at BCAS work tirelessly to embody these words.”

The board of education shared a presentation on the district’s expanded preschool program in September, a program that began in October. It is funded through the state’s Preschool Expansion grant, which awards districts on a competitive process based on their applications  outlining programs that adhere to the High Quality Preschool Guidelines. The district sent notice of funding in July.

Rafferty explained that the preschool program requires an invitation in order for a school to apply for the state grant.

“It’s not something you can just apply for and be awarded,” he said. “(Districts) actually have to be invited to apply. We were notified around 4th of July week that our district would be eligible to apply.”

The district received a notice of approval from the state on Sept. 8, nearly three weeks before the kindergarten program began. The school system got $1.5 million in state funding to provide age-eligible 3- and 4-year-olds with a full day of high-quality preschool programming. The 2021-’22 school year saw nine preschool classrooms in half-day programs, compared with 16 classrooms that are running full-day programs this school year.

Kindergarten school days now run for six hours, as mandated by the state. Enrollees learn about confidence, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. The curriculum also aims to build a classroom culture, with teachers and students working on greetings, asking open-ended questions and participating in activities that promote foreign language.

Valuing veterans

Rowan College at Burlington County this year opened its Center of Excellence for Veterans Student Success, a facility that will provide vets with academic support, a dedicated lounge space and online resources.

The center officially opened following a community fair for veterans on April 30 and is located in the Votta Hall section of the college, Room 134. The Burlington County District 11 Veterans of Foreign Wars and the VFW Auxiliary organized the fair..

The new center is funded by a federal grant and enables veterans to receive information about filing for federal VA claims, federal and state veterans’ benefits, housing, counseling, employment, discharge upgrades and other issues. All documented veterans –  regardless of their use of benefits – are eligible to use the facility.

Dr. Karen Archambault, vice president of Enrollment Management and Student Success at Rowan, noted that alumni are not covered by the federal grant but may also get support at the center.

“The grant is intended to get (veteran students) to graduation, so if they’ve already graduated, to some extent, they are no longer the target of the center,” she explained. “However, the main focus of the center is really to help (veteran) students overcome barriers to success, which includes connections to career and resources.”

In November, the township was recognized by Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Department of Military and Veteran Affairs as a We Value Our Veterans award winner. The award gives a municipality, business or academic institution the opportunity to value and honor the sacrifices, patriotism and bravery displayed by those who have served in the military.  

Mount Laurel completed programs and services to qualify for the award that included spots for Purple Heart recipients and disabled veterans, Memorial Day tributes and discounts for community-based recreation programs. The township received the accolade during an award ceremony on Veterans Day at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and Vietnam Era Museum in Holmdel. 

Pritchett, Deputy Mayor Stephen Steglik and council members Karen Cohen and Fozia Janjua were on hand to accept the honor. The mayor said it’s important for the township to show gratitude to its veterans.

“We must recognize and thank our veterans for the freedoms we enjoy today,” he said. “Veterans continue to embody strength and courage, and Mount Laurel Township will always endeavor to honor the immeasurable contributions of these brave individuals.”

Steglik said the award is devoted to all Americans who have served and that the township will continue to support them.

“This prestigious recognition from the state is dedicated to the generations of selfless American (people) that have bravely served our country,” he noted. 

Giving back to the community

Two 11-year-old township students raised $60 for the Burlington County Animal Shelter (BCAS) from a neighborhood yard sale in September. Lela Canataro and Ellie Harding attend Hartford Upper Elementary and their neighborhood typically hosts community yard sales twice a year that include crafted bead bracelets.. 

Lela’s mother, Jamie Canataro, explained that the pair’s love of animals was a deciding factor in their donation.

“They spent weeks making these bracelets,” she noted. “One of our neighbors organizes (the community yard sale), then sets the date and posts flyers for it, and all the houses who want to participate put the items in their driveway and sell.”

The students made $120 at the yard sale and donated half to the shelter. All monetary donations benefit the animals and are not used as a general fund.

“(This helps with) getting the girls involved early in giving back to the community and volunteering,” Canataro said. “I think it’s important for them to learn to give back and to take care of others who are less fortunate. A lot of times, it’s really helpful to find something you really care about and … both of these girls are so passionate about helping animals.”

The Rancocas Woods Business Association (RWBA) – a township nonprofit formed four years ago – hosted its second annual Boos and Brews event on Oct. 14. The association’s focus is to revitalize the Shops at Rancocas Woods and conserve the Rancocas Woods community on Creek Road. 

Janeen Hovnenian, director of Rancocas Woods Events, said the association hopes to maintain the shopping area for residents so it can be a main street for Mount Laurel.

“It’s a wonderful piece of New Jersey that’s tucked away,” she noted of the Rancocas Woods location. “We’re here to help the township create something that has a downtown environment and feel to it.”

Proceeds generated from Boos and Brews help promote the town’s shops and association events.

“The money we raise helps with our marketing and advertising of our shops downtown to the area,” explained Hovnenian, who added that event proceeds also help fund community activities and revitalization and redevelopment efforts such as new landscaping.

Donovan Delivers, a nonprofit that financially assists families who’ve lost a child at birth, hosted a fundraiser to help its cause in October at the township’s Golfspot. The Robbinsville-based organization was founded in 2015 by the Delay family after the loss of a grandchild, according to  Sharon Delay, its secretary and treasurer.

“We formed our charity after losing my grandson Donovan at birth,” she said. “We wanted to change that tragedy into something positive, because we realized there were so many families that have lost a child and their employers wouldn’t give them time off, or they couldn’t afford to pay their bills or for the burial of their baby.

“It was just shocking.”

The nonprofit works directly with families and hospitals to defray $2,000 in costs for medical, funeral or other services.  

“We’re a small (organization), so we don’t have a huge amount of money,” Delay noted. “We spend whatever we possibly can for each family that we help.”

Community celebrations 

The township marked its 150-year anniversary with an event for residents on May 15. 

In a release announcing the sesquicentennial celebration, Pritchett emphasized his appreciation for the residents and township. 

“As we mark Mount Laurel’s 150th anniversary, we celebrate the rich diversity and history of the place our residents and myself proudly call home,” he said in the release.  “Like many other residents, I’ve had the opportunity to raise a family here, and I’m incredibly honored to be mayor during this important landmark anniversary for our town.” 

The township and its police partnered to bring back the annual National Night Out event in August, after a two-year COVID hiatus. The free event enabled residents to interact with township officers during an evening of activities and giveaways.

Kyle Gardner, public relations officer for the police department, noted that the event’s goal was to help the police department show transparency to residents and improve relations with the community.

“You can never have enough positive interactions with the community,” he observed. “We want people to feel comfortable to approach us, because we’re here for them and we want them to feel a connection with us.” 

Gardner emphasized that building a rapport with residents is crucial to a good relationship between the department and the community.

“I think having events like (National Night Out), especially with how big of a town Mount Laurel is, is important, because it makes the community feel like a small town, where it seems like everyone knows each other,” he said.

“We’re so lucky to have such a great community, and we love doing events like this because we want to show our appreciation for them,” Gardner added. 

Council also hosted the community’s second annual food truck festival in September. The mayor  remarked that turnout from the inaugural festival resulted in the addition of even more trucks at this year’s event. 

“Last year’s food truck festival was a tremendous success,” he said before the event. ”This year, we have added more food trucks and community organizations that residents can enjoy.”

At its final meeting of the year this month, council announced the winners of the township’s first holiday house decorating contest. Deck the House had four categories: best use of theme, most creative, best classic and mayor’s choice. To be considered, residents had to fill out an entry application and have their home decorated by 5 p.m. on Dec. 10.

All submissions were required to include lights or illumination as well as be in good taste and   family oriented. The mayor’s choice was a personal favorite of houses Pritchett visited. Winners included the Maier family’s display, Merry Lights, the Albertson family’s Holiday Lights, the Kelly family’s gardener decor and the Christ family’s Rankin’ Bass Merry CHRIST-mad.

“Thank you to all the families that submitted their wonderful homes (in the contest),” the mayor remarked. “It was a really great event, and those are the kind of fun events we want to (continue doing).”

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