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EHT looks to parents as it revamps before- and after-school programs

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — After running several years in a deficit, the school district’s before- and after-school program is getting a revamp to increase participation.

During a town hall meeting last month, school officials spoke directly with parents about what they needed in a program, and the consensus was consistency, structure and more hours.

“My big thing is that the private one is open many times when the school one is not. I work in a hospital, my husband is a police officer, so we rely on that,” said parent Lorie O’Donoghue, who sends her children to private care.

About two dozen parents attended the meeting May 23 at the Alder Avenue Middle School. The day before, the school officials met with about six private day-care facilities in the township to learn about ways they can complement each other instead of competing.

The meetings followed a proposal last month by the district to terminate bus service to commercial day-care providers to make routes more efficient, which Superintendent Kim Gruccio decided against after parents voiced concerns.

Many said they needed to use private care because the district’s before- and after-school program, called Kids Klub, couldn’t meet their needs.

Gruccio said audits in the past have shown the program was not producing revenue, and was actually costing the district money, so they decided to put a focus on it.

“What are your needs? What do you need with a before- and after-care program?” Gruccio asked those in attendance.

According to figures provided by the school, Kids Klub had a deficit of $49,530 in 2018. The year prior it operated with a $112,847 deficit. The deficits date back to 2013.

Kids Klub is currently operated out of the Davenport and Slaybaugh elementary schools and costs parents $5 per day for the morning session and $7 per day for the afternoon. Parents can drop off students as early as 7 a.m. and pick up as late as 6 p.m., but the program does not operate when the school is closed.

Assistant Superintendent Stephen Santilli said Kristen Boyd, who runs the district’s ASPIRE after-school program for fourth and fifth graders, will be in charge of Kids Klub next year, and that the program will also get a new name.

He said the restructured program will align to the district goals of embrace, engage and educate. The district wants to incorporate science, technology, engineering and math, as well as art and reading in the program.

“We are huge advocates of student voice and choice, so we want to build that into the program as well,” Santilli said. “Educate, we want them going home with their homework completed and you being able to just check that over, and really having more family time. More and more we know that that time is valuable.”

Parent Kim Dempsey, who uses Kids Klub, said her daughter would benefit from a consistency in the staff, which she said changes from day to day.

Stephanie Pedrick, who spoke against the transportation change at April’s school board meeting, told administrators at the parent meeting May 23 that she needed reliable hours and times for child care, even when school is closed for snow days or holidays.

Other parents also said they would like to see the students separated into smaller, quieter groups with options for more structured activities or free play.

After the meeting, Gruccio said she felt it went well.

“Building relationships is very important to us. I really enjoyed meeting the parents and providers and hearing their suggestions. This lends to us customizing a program that fits the needs of the parents and students,” she said.

The district officials said they are working to unveil the new program in the near future.

Dale Gerhard / for the press  

The seventh annual Escape the Cape Triathlon takes place in North Cape May on Sunday. More than 2,500 participants jumped from the MV Delaware, one of the boats of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry system, swam ashore, then rode their bikes and ran to complete the race. Officials said an off-duty Philadelphia firefighter died of an apparent heart attack during the swim portion of the race. Story on A3.

'63 church bombing survivor shares story with Atlantic City students

ATLANTIC CITY — Sarah Collins Rudolph calls herself the “fifth little girl.”

She survived the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, more than 50 years ago, and now, she travels the country sharing her story.

On Wednesday, Rudolph told students at Atlantic City High School it took her a very long time to open up about her experience.

Rudolph’s sister and three other young girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair — died in an explosion set by members of the Ku Klux Klan at a black church in Birmingham, on Sept. 15, 1963. Twenty-two others were injured.

Three Klansman were sentenced in the girls’ murders. A fourth alleged bomber was never charged.

Coming at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the bombing “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”

Rudolph visited both the high school and Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville last week to talk about the life-changing event, made all the more relevant after several recent attacks on houses of worship in the United States and abroad.

She thanked God for her strength.

“I was going through a lot before He healed me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here speaking if God hadn’t done work on the inside of me.”

Rudolph called people who go into churches to kill others “cowards.”

“We shouldn’t think of doing people like that. You don’t know them, and you want to do harm to them? It’s time for this whole nation to really love each other and stop all the killing,” Rudolph said, her voice deep and soft with a strong Southern twang.

Questions for the assembly were prepared by Atlantic City journalism students.

Seniors Farhana Siddiquei, Gerald Angon-Posada and Na-Drai Brickhouse took the stage with Rudolph, her husband, George C. Rudolph, Northfield Councilwoman Susan Korngut, who helped facilitate the event, and Atlantic City High School Principal Lina Gil.

Gil said she was honored to have Rudolph at the school.

“Having a survivor of a bombing share her story really puts a reality to what they’re experiencing as they see these events on social media and the news,” Gil said.

Rudolph said the biggest lesson she learned from her traumatic experience was to love.

“That was the name of the sermon,” she said. “That’s what they were talking about that Sunday. They almost took that loving feeling out of me that I had because, I’m just going to be honest, I really started hating people.”

She said she still has post-traumatic stress disorder, which causes nervousness, from the bombing.

Rudolph has been speaking with students since 2002.

She hopes she can inspire and inform, and help turn those who may consider violence away from it.

“A lot of young people weren’t born in 1963, and they need to know about this history, what we had to do to get this freedom that we have,” she said. “How people had to suffer and die for us to get this freedom. And people shouldn’t take it for granted.”

She said she never thought her story would still be so relevant today.

“And I don’t understand why,” Rudolph said.

“It’s something that should never happen.”

Mullica police chief in talks to leave job, sparking controversy

MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Police Chief John Thompson is negotiating to leave his job early amid an internal affairs investigation that Thompson’s lawyers call frivolous and concocted.

Some residents say he is being pushed out of the job so Mayor Christopher Silva’s son-in-law, next in line for the job, can become chief.

Thompson, who angered some last year in this small rural community when he tried to fire a veteran officer with sleep apnea, declined comment, but his lawyers released written statements.

“Chief Thompson has served Mullica Township for 24 years. He has a stellar reputation,” said employment attorney Michelle Douglass, who is representing Thompson. “He strongly denies any recently concocted claim which is baseless and sadly, motivated by something other than the truth.”

Silva said rumors that he is trying to benefit his son-in-law Capt. Brian Zeck are false, and he has recused himself in the matter.

“I was not on committee when he (Zeck) was hired, or when he was promoted to sergeant or captain,” said Silva.

The township has opened an internal affairs investigation against Thompson, according to a resolution to approve a settlement agreement with the chief that was on the committee’s Tuesday night agenda but pulled from voting at the last minute.

Silva said a complaint had been filed against Thompson, and under the state Attorney General’s rules the county prosecutor investigated and declined to take action. Now the township is required to do its own investigation and is using an outside investigator, Silva said.

“I can only tell you any allegations made against him are frivolous and are denied,” said Thompson’s attorney Michael Testa Sr. “And no disciplinary charges have been filed against the chief.”

The settlement resolution says the settlement is to avoid the possibility of “a long and protracted disciplinary hearing or alternatively, if the statutory right was involved, a hearing before the Superior Court of New Jersey.”

It does not describe any of the details of the settlement, or if any monetary payment is involved.

Also pulled were resolutions to amend the employment contracts of Thompson and Mullica Police Capt. Brian Zeck, who is Silva’s son-in-law.

Hanselmann said the resolutions were pulled from voting because of late additions requested by the chief that the attorneys had not yet reviewed.

Thompson’s contract is retroactive from 2016 to 2020, and Zeck’s is from 2019 to 2023. No details were in the resolutions about terms of the amendments.

Thompson’s salary in 2017 was about $114,000, and Zeck’s salary was about $104,000, according to public records.

Democrats hoping to swing Atlantic County freeholder board

Lost in the national focus of whether Democrats will take the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to stymie President Donald Trump’s agenda are important local races that could significantly change the way Atlantic County is run.

Committeeman Jim Brown said the committee never voted to authorize anyone to negotiate with Thompson, but Committeewoman Kristi Hanselmann is doing so at the direction of Silva.

But Hanselmann said when the executive session minutes are released for the May 14 committee meeting, Brown’s statement will be proved untrue.

“I have followed township policies 100 percent by the book,” said Hanselmann. She said Thompson approached her with a proposal that she brought to the attorneys and the committee.

Brown also said he is worried about the cost of Thompson retiring early. Thompson has enough years in to retire — 27 in total and 24 in the township, according to Silva and Hanselmann. So it’s unclear why he wouldn’t simply retire.

Silva began overseeing the Public Safety Department in January, after getting an opinion from the township solicitor about his ability to oversee the public safety department.

Former Committeewoman Barbara Rheault, who was public safety director until the end of 2018, said Zeck had not signed his contract for 2016 to 2018 because he was unhappy with some aspects of it.

A new contract for 2016 to 2018 was negotiated by Hanselmann in the first two weeks of January, Brown said, and signed by Zeck on Jan. 15.

With Silva recused, the committee voted for the new contract, which gave greater salary increases back to 2016 and other perks to Zeck, according to Rheault, the only Democrat committee member at the time.

The 13-person department has one chief, one captain, one sergeant, two corporals, and six patrolmen and two special Class 2 officers, said Hanselmann.

She said she cannot comment further on the negotiations.