Schools Dominated Southern Ocean County News in 2017

Some Controversies Remain Unresolved
By RICK MELLERUP | Jan 17, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Last week when we wrapped up the first installment of the Top 20 news stories of 2017 as reported in the pages of The SandPaper, we promised plenty of controversy in the second and final chapter. Well, ladies and gentlemen, step right up …

No. 10: The opioid scourge continues. This has been a frequent entry in our Top 20 news stories and, sad to say, will probably remain so for years to come.

The final tally of opioid overdose deaths in Ocean County in 2017 will likely be in the 200 range, as it was in 2016. The addition to the drug scene of the synthetic painkiller fentanyl, frequently illegally manufactured in China, Russia and Mexico and often mixed with heroin to drive down prices and boost the high, has helped increase the numbers not only in Ocean County, but across the nation.

“There are more than 40 different types of fentanyl,” Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato told The SandPaper. “It’s why I call it the synthetic storm,” adding the drug is over 100 times more powerful than morphine, and over 50 percent more potent than heroin.

The situation is so deadly in Ocean County that in September the county was designated a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area by the Office of National Drug Control Police, becoming the 29th HIDTA in the nation. That will mean Ocean County can expect federal assistance in the form of multi-agency investigations, interdiction and prosecution activities, intelligence and information-sharing initiatives and drug use prevention and drug treatment initiatives.

While law enforcement officials love to talk numbers when it comes to OD deaths, they don’t – or can’t – talk actual people. County residents, including reporters, often aren’t aware that the kid down the street died from an OD, or that seniors in town who had never done drugs before started looking for street drugs to battle pain with disastrous results because state guidelines made it almost impossible to obtain legal prescriptions for painkillers.

As long as people die in silence, the opioid epidemic will be naught but a statistic for most people, with many saying “it doesn’t affect me” when, in reality, it probably has already taken the life of somebody they knew.

No. 9: A bridge to the future sometimes makes the present almost unbearable. When the $350 million Route 72/Manahawkin Bridge project is completed, it will probably be wonderful. Two main bridges to LBI, one on, one off, providing more lanes not only for summer visitors, but also for emergency evacuations, plus a bike lane, sidewalks, improved drainage at each end … what’s not to like? But the project isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2022, meaning motorists face four to five more years of confusion due to changes in traffic patterns.

There can be occasional snags as well. But locals aren’t used to snarled traffic in November, which is exactly what happened for two days the week before Thanksgiving. A resurfacing project between the East and West Thorofare Bridges resulted in a summer-like traffic jam in Ship Bottom. “We did all we could to attempt to alleviate the traffic flow,” Ship Bottom Police Sgt. Michael Nash told The SandPaper, “but as long as the source of the problem was on the other side of the bridge, there’s really not much we can do but divert traffic away from Route 72 and down already-jammed side streets.”

No. 8: Oysters returning to Barnegat Bay. Did you know Barnegat Bay was the epicenter of the East Coast oyster industry in the second half of the 19th century, when oysters were the equivalent of hot dogs in New York City, sold on the streets and cheap enough for just about anyone? At the same time they were a delicacy for the middle class and the rich – just think of “Oysters Rockefeller.” Many – ton after ton – were harvested in Barnegat Bay. It’s true, as related in “The Oyster Farmers,” a documentary that was a highlight of the 2017 Lighthouse International Film Festival, produced by former SandPaper journalist Angela Andersen.

Over-harvesting ended the boom by about 1920. But oysters are returning to the bay, thanks to those aforementioned oyster farmers – folks such as Tuckerton’s Parson’s Seafood and Matt Gregg and Scott Lennox of Barnegat’s Forty North Oyster Farms. Meanwhile, Long Beach Township chipped into the effort with a recycling effort that collects shells from township restaurants to cure and place back in the bay so that more oysters can be raised in an artificial reef.

“We really have to get our oyster reefs and clam beds back to where they were,” said LBT Mayor Joseph Mancini, who clammed from the age of 14 to college-age, “for two reasons: it keeps the water clean, and it’s part of the heritage of Barnegat Bay. … One adult oyster siphons 50 gallons a day.”

Meanwhile, local oysters are becoming a staple of many a local restaurant. How cool is that!

No. 7: Island taxpayers object to paying so much for Southern Regional High School. This is an issue that has bounced around LBI for decades. The Southern Regional School District has seven constituent members – Stafford Township and the six Island municipalities. Taxpayers on the Island pay huge amounts, ranging from $51,000 (Beach Haven) to $254,000 (Harvey Cedars) per student of their town, to educate the Island’s middle and high school students. Meanwhile, Stafford Township taxpayers pay only an average of $4,000 to educate one of their students. Southern has about 3,100 students, of which barely 220 are Islanders. “There is nothing fair about this,” said Bill Huston, president of the Joint Council of Taxpayers Association of Long Beach Township. “We only want a fair and equitable solution.”

The JCTA hosted a well-attended meeting at the Harvey Cedars Bible Conference on June 8 to discuss the issue. The invited speaker was Vito Gagliardi, an attorney with plenty of experience in the field, having successfully represented five Garden State municipalities in their quest to amend school funding in their communities.

The attorney told the crowd that New Jersey’s school funding formula “is a mess.” “And if you’re part of a regional school district, it’s a bigger mess.”

Alas, Gagliardi also told the crowd that it would take almost a decade to unravel Island communities from the regional district.

Gagliardi was part of a team that investigated the issue way back in 2006, an effort that went nowhere.

“It died on the vine,” he told the crowd. “It was very complicated from a political standpoint.”

No. 6: Arguments over the dog park in Barnegat Light reach new heights. There was a whole lot of barking going on in LBI’s most northern borough about two issues last year – a proposal to up the height limit of buildings from 30 to 32 feet and an argument over the management/costs of the borough’s dog park.

The battle over the former was fought at borough council meetings and in letters to the editor of The SandPaper throughout the spring. It came to an abrupt end at a June 10 meeting of the Barnegat Light Taxpayers Association when an overwhelming show of hands nixed the idea, causing Mayor Kirk Larson to later say, “I’m not going to push something that people don’t want.”

The growling over the latter was even worse, at least in The SandPaper’s letters section and, apparently, at the park itself and in town hall. Barnegat Light had decided to require a key card to open the gate at the West 10th Street site. Borough property owners could get one for free after registering proof of an up-to-date rabies vaccination and dog license. But out-of-towners would have to not only meet that requirement, but also pay $30 for the privilege. When unaware dog lovers returned to the borough in the spring, they complained in no uncertain and sometimes nasty terms – so much so that Mayor Kirk Larson floated the idea of dumping the park.

“These are the meanest, rudest people,” said Larson at the borough’s June council meeting, referring to how out-of-towners spoke to borough employees.

Municipal Clerk Brenda Kuhn told The SandPaper, “On the whole, we’ve had a lot of difficulties with the people …  who just don’t want to abide by the rules. They are not happy with the new system. They don’t want to have to pay. They want to be able to come and go as they please. … A lot of them were not happy – a lot from out of town, some from out of state.”

As of now, the dog park remains. But another summer of rude, dog-owning visitors (imagine a tourist being rude) could cause the council to bite back.

No. 5: Long Beach Township bans single-use plastic carryout bags in stores. If visitors to Barnegat Light were angry that the borough had required out-of-towners to pay $30 to use its dog park, imagine what many a visitor to LBT will say when they find out they’ll have to use paper bags or bring their own when shopping.

The bag-ban ordinance, though, drew almost unanimous local support, judging by most comments in letters to The SandPaper. At a public hearing on the initiative, not a single person voiced opposition while many praised it.

“This is a good thing,” said Mayor Mancini at the meeting where the ordinance was approved. “We won’t have all those plastic bags flying around the neighborhood anymore.”

“This is great news for our Island and the local environment,” said Alliance for a Living Ocean Executive Director Kyle Gronostajski. “Single-use plastic bags are not necessary, and are certainly an item we can live without. Bringing our own bag is simple enough to do and can have real impacts on our beautiful surrounding beaches and waterways.”

Other Island municipalities are considering following Long Beach Township’s lead. The ordinance will go into effect in LBT in the late spring or early summer.

No. 4: Local Congressmen in the news. Frank LoBiondo, whose 2nd New Jersey Congressional District includes most of Southern Ocean County, announced in November he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2018. LoBiondo, 71, will end a long political career, beginning in Cumberland County government, the state Assembly and then in Congress since 1995.

He jumped to the defense of the Coast Guard when that service’s budget was threatened by the Trump administration in early March – the Coast Guard’s only basic training center, a.k.a. boot camp, is located in Cape May, also part of his district. That same month he joined with Democrat Frank Pallone Jr. to introduce legislation to prevent NOAA’s 2017 and 2018 summer flounder quotas for recreational and commercial fishing from going into effect. Later in March he fought against a proposed hike in flood insurance rates to fund a Mexican border wall, and also sought $16 million to upgrade the radar systems of the nation’s F-16 fleet, including those stationed at the 177th Air National Guard Fighter Wing in Pomona. He introduced legislation in May that would prohibit controversial seismic surveys in the Atlantic and announced that two of the three national wildlife refuges in his district would receive $1.3 million in federal funds raised by the sale of “Duck Stamps.”

He also opposed both of the GOP’s 2017 major legislative efforts – the failed repeal and replacement of Obamacare and the recently successful tax cut/reform bill.

People wondered if LoBiondo was suffering from an undisclosed health problem. He denied that in making his retirement announcement, saying it was the current political atmosphere that made him call it quits.

“As a freeholder, assemblyman and now congressman, I always looked for solutions that produce real world results built upon cooperation and partnerships,” said LoBiondo in his announcement statement. “People before politics has always been my philosophy and my motivation. Regrettably, our nation is now consumed by increasing political polarization; there is no longer middle ground to honestly debate issues and put forward solutions.”

The area’s other representative in the House, Tom MacArthur, took the mold of Southern Ocean County congressmen and smashed it.

Sure, MacArthur, whose 3rd District includes the western half of Stafford Township and all of Barnegat, has worked for his constituents, bringing a new generation of Air Force tankers to the McGuire/Dix/Lakehurst Joint Base and blasting FEMA for its response to Superstorm Sandy. But he’s also been active at the national level, serving, at one time, as co-chairman of the moderate GOP “Tuesday Group” and as the Republican co-chair of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force.

Love him or hate him, you have to admit MacArthur has nerve. He has held town halls in his district, even during the middle of the heated repeal-and-replace health care debate.

Most importantly, MacArthur stuck his thumb squarely into the two big GOP pies of 2017. He was responsible for repeal-and-replace passing the House, thanks to his “MacArthur Amendment,” which would have allowed states to obtain limited waivers from certain federal standards, in the interest of lowering premium costs and expanding the number of insured persons. And it was MacArthur who thought up the idea of allowing a limited federal tax deduction for residents of high-tax states, such as New Jersey, for property and state taxes. Critics will argue it isn’t enough of a deduction; supporters will say it is good for most middle-class people and allowed the tax plan to pass, winning the badly needed support of GOP moderates.

MacArthur is a mover and shaker. But in November he planted himself firmly in the Trump camp when he invited U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and First Daughter Ivanka Trump to speak at an invitation-only “discussion on tax reform” at the Bayville Fire Hall.

He’ll more than likely face strong Democratic opposition in 2018, considering his opponent will probably be Andy Kim, a 34-year-old who once worked with Gen. David Petraeus in the Department of Defense and at the National Security Agency.

No. 3: Steve’s Back! Former Surflight Theatre Artistic Director Steve Steiner looked to find financial backers to buy the Beach Haven landmark from the second it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in February 2015. But it looked as if he would be unsuccessful, with other potential buyers hopping ahead of him in line. But Steiner persisted, and in March 2017 he found his angel in New York, producer Al Parinello, who bought the theater with the understanding that Steiner would run it.

Well, you can’t find too many skeptics these days. Steiner had projected the sale of about 24,000 main stage tickets in the 2017 season. They went on to outdo that projection by about 10,000 tickets!

Surflight has already announced its 2018 season, and Steiner and Co. are hard at work conducting extensive repairs on the theater.

Who said there are no second acts?

No. 2: Mainland schools awash with controversy. School taxes typically make up the largest portion of tax bills in New Jersey, so it isn’t surprising that schools attract a ton of attention from voters and residents, even when taxes are not the main issue.

The Barnegat School District’s Board of Education decided not to renew the contract of embattled Superintendent Karen Wood when it expires in June 2018. Wood was hired in 2011.

The Little Egg Harbor School District BOE was very happy with Superintendent Melissa McCooley. It gave her a new five-year contract in July, a year ahead of schedule. But a letter to The Sandpaper editor showed not everybody was happy with the decision to raise her salary from $135,000 to $169,689. “Please explain to the taxpayers and parents of Little Egg Harbor how you can consider authorizing raises for those individuals (the board business administrator and the principal of the Frog Pond School also got pay bumps) when our children do not go on field trips and our classrooms do not have school supplies The school says that to save the district money, parents now have to go online and retrieve progress reports and report cards.”

Stafford Township School District Superintendent George Chidiac took a lot of heat in May for proposing a number of teacher transfers among the district’s various schools.

But the Pinelands Regional School District topped the pack for controversy in 2017. In the spring, many a BOE meeting was dominated by a decision to lay off six teachers, including one who was also the high school head football coach. Despite much protest, the board supported Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks’ recommendation to make the layoffs, due to declining enrollment.

That was just the beginning of the woes at Pinelands. In October both the junior high and high schools were closed for several days for air quality testing because of an asbestos scare. No sooner had they reopened than the high school was closed again, precipitated by a large construction screw that fell from the ceiling of the commons area atrium.

High school students were moved to the junior high, and split sessions were instituted. It was originally thought the high school would reopen in mid-November. In fact, the high school didn’t reopen until Jan. 16 for staff, and the next day for students.

Talk about anger! Parents, concerned for their kids’ health and education, packed many a BOE meeting. It was such an angry atmosphere that at least one police officer – and sometimes more than one – was assigned to keep things calm. Indeed, officers had to remove some enraged parents.

Meanwhile the district lost its interim superintendent to a sudden retirement due to health issues.

Then a new issue arose – Sex, etc., a magazine produced at Rutgers University, sparked the wrath of several parents who found it age inappropriate for the junior high media center. A committee of educators twice recommended the magazine should be allowed in the media center. The school board eventually withdrew its support, and the sex advice publication was removed.

However, the biggest problem remained the shape of the high school building. And its problems were caused by a relatively simple roof replacement, part of the first phase of construction/repair authorized by a three-question, $54 million referendum package approved by voters in January 2017, itself controversial. Well, the first phase was simplicity itself, compared to Phase 2.

In other words, stay tuned. Pinelands will be in the news many a time in 2018.

No. 1: One school or two in the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District?

This has been an issue for several years. Should the LBISD close the LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom and move all of the staff and students to the Ethel A. Jacobsen School in Surf City?

Oh Lordie, to recap the contentious debate in this article is impossible; it would require an entire newspaper just for itself. The SandPaper received almost as many letters on this issue as it did about President Trump, with the same 50/50 split supporting the move and opposing it. In the end, voters shot down an $18.4 million referendum to expand and renovate the E.J. School.

So the question is simple: Now what?

Well, SandPaper readers will see in 2018.

One thing is clear in advance: The debate will continue to be controversial.

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