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How are area schools using increases in state aid next year?

The school tax levy is going up in Egg Harbor Township next year as the district plans to put an additional $4.2 million in school funding back into its operating budget for the 2019-20 school year.

At its March meeting, the school board moved to introduce a $146 million budget, including an $85 million tax levy, up $3 million over last year, that included the elimination of five positions.

“Because we are still significantly underfunded, the additional state aid helped us to be stable, but not replenish or expand our staff or programs,” said school business administrator Chandra Anaya. “The funds were used for increases in our fixed costs and to continue existing programs that support the district learning goals.”

Of all the districts in the Press coverage area, about a third received an increase in state aid thanks to the changes in the school funding law over the summer designed to help those considered underfunded. But Egg Harbor Township is one of few that are filtering back aid increases into the school. Many are putting it toward tax relief.

Hammonton is planning to use all of $1.5 million, and then some, to increase the total budget about $5 million to $56 million, but is keeping its school tax rate flat.

Hammonton school board President Sam Mento III said he would have liked to lower taxes with the additional funding if he could have. He said the board is “trying to give a first class education to our students for a price our taxpayers can afford.”

The Bridgeton school district, which received an additional $4.6 million in funding this year, also held taxes flat this year. The school board there introduced a $104 million budget — up about $3 million — with a general fund tax levy of $3.7 million. The resolution did not indicate the impact on debt service.

Atlantic City did receive a significant bump in its school funding this year, but ended up with a net loss of about $600,000 as the governor’s proposed budget reduced a special tax base stabilization aid by about $12 million. Despite the loss, school officials introduced a $186.6 million budget with a flat tax levy of $81.9 million.

That bump in categorical aid in Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed 2020 budget creates a net loss of about $600,000.

“For us it was just a move from one line to the next,” Atlantic City School District business administrator Celeste Ricketts said.

Ricketts said the tax base stabilization aid came in one lump sum, so having the categorical aid increase was a better fit for the district because it’s paid monthly.

Over the next month and a half, school districts will hold budget hearings and take final votes on their school spending. But depending on how budget negotiations go in Trenton, the state aid figures will not be finalized until the 2020 budget is signed into law. The state has a June 30 deadline, and in the last two years, school budget figures have been adjusted significantly between then and now.

Legislators began meeting last month for budget hearings and to get feedback on the proposals. Egg Harbor Township was among those who submitted testimony, praising the additional funds but lamenting how long it took to get them.

“This year’s proposed increase of $4.2 million will still leave us at $28.3 million below full annual school formula funding. This increase, while welcomed and appreciated, barely allows us to maintain what we have in our current budget, and our students and taxpayers are still being shortchanged,” reads the district’s submitted testimony.

The testimony said the district’s drop in academic achievement was a direct result of the years of underfunding, and that its per-pupil spending is $1,000 below the state average.

Anaya said more than 100 people and many educational programs have been cut from Egg Harbor Township School District in the last decade due to underfunding.

“This is the first year in many that we didn’t have to cut double-digit positions due to lack of funding,” Anaya said.

South Jersey 'Green Book' locations on display at AC, Hammonton art exhibits

Fine artist Kelley Prevard never used to wait inside her Ventnor home for the young black boyfriend she had five years ago, who drove a Bentley and liked to play his music loud.

Prevard, now 30, would wait for him outside of her apartment, to make sure nothing happened to him, and would drive away with him as soon as possible.

“He would visit me all the time at my house. He would get stopped by the police all the time coming to Ventnor,” said Prevard, who lives in Atlantic City now. “The assumption is he’s a big black guy riding in a nice car. He has to be a drug dealer. He would get constantly stopped by the cops.”

Prevard contributed a painting, named “Not On My Watch,” to the exhibition of art, photos and artifacts titled “Driving While Black,” which is on display through May 26 at the Noyes Museum of Art at Stockton University’s Kramer Hall, 30 Front St., Hammonton.

The movie “Green Book,” this year’s Oscar-winning best film, got its name from “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” first published in 1936, which helped black motorists identify hotels, restaurants, service stations and other businesses that would serve them as they traveled during the era of segregation.

A change in New Jersey’s constitution outlawed overt segregation in schools in 1947 — seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision — but in 1941, 70 districts in the state had some form of segregation, mostly in South Jersey, which was an agricultural area at the time.

A map outlining 55 places in South Jersey is included in the “Green Book” travel guide, which is part of the exhibit in Hammonton. A copy of the map is also on display at the Noyes Arts Garage, 2200 Fairmount Ave., Atlantic City.

The 55 South Jersey locations in the book include three in Cape May, 11 in Wildwood, four in Ocean City and 27 in Atlantic City.

There are few remnants of the places mentioned in the South Jersey section of the book, said Ralph E. Hunter Sr., founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, which has one of its locations inside the Noyes Arts Garage.

Condos have been built at the site of Apex Rest at North Indiana and Ontario avenues, Hunter said.

The Randell Hotel at 1601 Arctic Ave. is now a parking lot, and the Liberty Hotel at 1519 Baltic Ave. is now senior citizens housing, said Hunter, whose museum is one of the partners for the Noyes Museum exhibit.

“We have several collaborators that also loaned us artwork,” said Saskia Schmidt, director of education, Noyes Museum of Art at Stockton University.

Hunter lent the exhibit a Ku Klux Klan robe and a ball and chain. The Millville Army Air Museum lent a gun. The Paul Robeson House & Museum in Philadelphia and the Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery in Germantown, Pennsylvania, each lent the exhibit some items along with the Maryland Historical Society, Schmidt said.

Besides Prevard, other contemporary artists loaned the exhibit their work, include Belinda Manning, of Pleasantville; Tyrone Hart, of Atlantic City; and Lavett Ballard, who teaches at Cumberland County College in Vineland, Schmidt said.

The work is all related to the theme of the struggle for freedom and rights of the black population of this country, Schmidt said.

“The freedom of movement, to me, that’s really the theme of the whole exhibition,” Schmidt said. “’Green Book’ is a part of it. ... It signifies what African Americans had to do to travel. They had to have their own book to find places where they could stay safely, especially during the Jim Crow era, but it’s continuing to this day. It’s still a struggle.”

Several events are planned around the exhibit, which features 15 artists and more than 65 pieces:

• April 18: From 6 to 8 p.m., preview of an excerpt from the documentary “Driving While Black,” followed by a discussion at Kramer Hall.

• May 11: From 1:30 to 3 p.m., preview of an excerpt from the documentary “Driving While Black,” followed by a discussion at the Arts Garage in Atlantic City.

• May 16: From 6 to 8 p.m., a poetry and story slam, led by Stockton Professor of Writing and poet Emari DiGiorgio at Kramer Hall. Several of DiGiorgio’s poems are also part of the exhibition.

Ocean City couple finds old love letters in their ceiling

OCEAN CITY — Power drills whirled as construction continued inside Scott Fisher and Magdalena Kernan’s new Ocean City home last week.

The engaged couple said they were always looking for a fixer-upper, but they found something unexpected a month ago when they started their renovations.

A stack of 47-year-old love letters sat hidden above two layers of drywall in their hallway ceiling.

Fisher uncovered the letters, but he originally thought they were just part of the rubble falling around him.

“I started digging even further, and I’m reading a couple things. I’m reading a couple letters, and I realize there’s a pattern to things,” Fisher said.

The letters were addressed to an 18-year-old man who had just started training at the Coast Guard base in Cape May in 1972. Each one was handwritten and included correspondence from two different women at the time.

The letters ranged from mundane conversations to romantic musings.

“Without a doubt your love for me is a lasting love,” one of the women scrawled in pen.'

Some even contained Polaroid pictures that the women sent, which serve as a window into another decade.

In one of the glossy images, one of the women stands inside what looks like a living room full of ‘70s décor.

She faces the camera straight on, wearing a white peasant blouse and knee-length red skirt. Her hand rests on a wood-framed television with a large black dial. The glare of the camera flash bursts in the circular mirror behind her.

Kernan, who is herself a professional photographer, got a kick out of the simple pose, thinking about how photography has evolved.

She also likes the simple note that accompanied the letter. In it, the woman asks her love if he likes her new glasses.

“For us this is our first house that we’ve bought and finding the letter is just a sign for both of us that we’re in the right place,” Kernan said. “Especially as photographers, finding photos inside the letters was incredible because our job as photographers is to preserve moments.”

The two 27-year-olds both have professional jobs — Magdalena finished law school and works as a clerk for an appellate judge, and Scott is a counselor at an elementary school in Cape May.

But they also run their own wedding photography company based in Ocean City. They view their finding of these letters as a perfect connection.

“We love love,” Magdelanna said. “We’re a part of all these love stories all the time.”

The couple plans to get married themselves at the end of July.

They found other interesting items inside the stacks, including a 1972 postcard for Ocean City and stamps depicting President Dwight D. Eisenhower that only cost 8 cents.

“We’re mailing out our wedding invitations now. I wish we could use these,” Kernan joked.

The hole in the ceiling where they found the letters a month ago is closed now, but their obsession continues.

“I want to ask him so many questions,” Kernan said. “If he is ever open to it, I feel like that would be such a cool follow up story.”

Kernan documented the renovation and the discovery on her Instagram @magsymooo, which has more than 18,000 followers. She said she got countless messages asking her for more details about the letters.

Kernan wants to know how the letters ended up in the drywall and would love to hear more about the history of the house that she and Fisher plan to start their new life in. She’d also like to return the memories.

“These are so special. It was a time in their lives, and you didn’t have duplicates back then,” she said.

While she still searches for answers, she says that the letters have inspired them in other ways.

Kernan decided to go out and buy her own letter heads so they can start putting an effort into writing more letters.

“It was really special to see how much time people had to put in back then and how meaningful these things were. It’s pretty inspiring,” Fisher said.

The discovery also reassured Kernan about her choices as a photographer moving forward.

While she might have questioned her choice to shoot in classic film, these letters solidified her choice to use the medium she always believed would never go out of style.

“It’s timeless and lasts forever,” Kernan said.

GALLERY: This Ocean City home sold for $2.8M

Salvation Army looks to help fill void left by Sister Jean's Kitchen

ATLANTIC CITY — With the future of Sister Jean’s Kitchen still unclear, the Salvation Army is one of a handful of social service organizations stepping up to fill the void.

Captain Frank Picciotto, head of the Salvation Army Atlantic City Corps on South Texas Avenue, said the agency has seen an uptick in people needing food assistance since the abrupt closure of Sister Jean’s in early-February.

He estimated that an additional 400 meals were served by Salvation Army’s soup kitchen in February.

“We see the struggle that’s going on here,” said Picciotto. “But we’re blessed to be able to help those who are struggling or suffering.”

On an average day, Picciotto said, the facility serves about 100 to 150 people.

The Salvation Army serves free lunch every weekday from noon to 1 p.m. The organization’s food pantry is open from 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and again between 1 and 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Picciotto said the Salvation Army also has showers and laundry machines available, offers services for women and provides vouchers to the agency’s thrift store on North Albany Avenue for those affected by domestic violence, fire or other emergency situations.

“The doors are always open,” he said. “I don’t want to see anybody on the streets suffering.”

The city forced Sister Jean’s Kitchen to vacate the Victory First Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Pennsylvania and Pacific avenues, on Feb. 7 after deeming the 163-year-old building unsafe. Sister Jean’s served nearly 300 meals per day before it closed.

The nonprofit has been working with city and state officials as well as the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to find a new location outside of the Tourism District.

GALLERY: Sister Jean's Kitchen through the years

Bill Southrey, a board member for Friends of Sister Jean Webster Inc. and former director of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, said he was not aware of any progress on the relocation issue. He said even with other agencies doing more, Atlantic City needs Sister Jean’s.

“Sister Jean’s does great work and should be supported by the town,” he said. “If anything should be supported, it’s Sister Jean’s.”

The Friends of Sister Jean Webster Inc. purchased three buildings in 2017 for $246,000 from the former St. Monica’s Catholic Church on North Pennsylvania Avenue with the intent of relocating, but the plan fell through. The CRDA had allocated $1 million to assist Sister Jean’s, but the total cost of outfitting the new buildings so that they complied with code proved to be more expensive than expected and the funding expired.

One week after the city closed the soup kitchen, Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. publicly opposed moving Sister Jean’s to St. Monica’s, citing safety concerns for the children and residents of the neighborhood.

The Atlantic City Rescue Mission, located just outside the city’s Tourism District behind the Convention Center, reportedly received financial assistance from CRDA to offset the costs of feeding additional people after Sister Jean’s closed, according to a state official. Officials with the Rescue Mission said they have the capacity to serve up to 800 daily meals if necessary.