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Pinelands moving to share special education director to dismay of parents

LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Pinelands Regional School District’s director of special education position may soon become another shared service with Little Egg Harbor, the superintendent said last week after the board approved scrapping the position, upsetting some parents of students with special needs.

The job was eliminated by the school board at its Feb. 26 meeting and, on the same agenda, the board approved hiring educational consultant Thomas Hand at $425 per day to oversee the department’s transition.

Not everyone was happy about the decision to consolidate. Parents of special education students say they were caught off guard and felt like the removal of Director of Special Education Ellen Ward from the position was done in secret.

“It seemed very underhanded and sort of sneaky,” said Jane Beller, who has a child with autism in the district.

Beller said she found out the position was eliminated two days after the meeting.

Superintendent Melissa McCooley said Hand, who previously worked as a special education director for the Galloway Township School District, was brought in to fill in for 60 days and “clean up the department.”

“If anything, I think it’s going to be better because we still have our child study team in place, and the consultant I am bringing in has years in special education,” McCooley said.

McCooley is the shared superintendent between Little Egg Harbor, a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade local district, and Pinelands, a seventh-through-12th-grade regional district. Other shared services include the district business administrator and assistant business administrator, child study team, food service and information technology.

The regional district serves 1,600 students from the township as well as Tuckerton and Eagleswood Township in Ocean County and Bass River Township in Burlington County. There are about 350 full-time special education and 40 shared-time students.

The district’s special education budget is about $3 million and it received $1.1 million in state aid for the program this school year, according to its budget.

McCooley said she had some concerns about the special education department when she got to the district in June but didn’t disclose what they were because they were “sensitive and confidential.” Records show an audit of the special education department by Shelly Myers was approved in July by the school board at a cost of $1,000.

“I decided to take the department in a different direction because of the amount of money being spent in certain areas that I think we could spend more efficiently,” McCooley said.

Ward, who earned an annual salary of $123,000, will be paid for the 60 days the consultant is in place. After that, McCooley said, the school board will consider approving a shared-service agreement with Little Egg Harbor Township for its special education director, Erin Lichtenwalner, who currently earns $111,000.

Beller said she had a bad experience two years ago in the Little Egg Harbor Township School District when her son was in sixth grade and Lichtenwalner was hired there. She said her son has been thriving since being at Pinelands.

“And I’m terrified it’s going to go back to how it was before,” Beller said.

Beller said the more immediate concern is that one person will be split between two districts, which she said is too much work for one person.

Christina Schadewald, of Little Egg Harbor, has three children with autism in the district and said she never received notification of the change.

“It’s very discouraging. We feel like our kids are pushed aside right away. Ellen Ward, she went to bat for our kids, and I think we should have had the right to go in and say something on her behalf,” Schadewald said.

Debra Sloan, of Little Egg Harbor, who has one son with autism in the district, said the parents are not trying to sensationalize the issue, but to ensure their students receive the best education. She questioned the intent of the school administration in creating the shared-service agreement.

Sloan said Ward was open-minded and quick to respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

“Having a special-needs child, you always have to fight, fight, fight, and here was one person who was really advocating for the kids,” she said.

Pinelands announced this week it would hold a special meeting Thursday to answer parents’ concerns about the changes in the special education program.

Murphy budget calls for millionaire's tax, finds $1 billion in savings

Gov. Phil Murphy called for increased income taxes on anyone making $1 million a year or more in his 2020 budget address Tuesday, after announcing more than $1 billion in savings in voluntary public worker health care concessions and departmental spending.

He presented a total budget of $38.6 billion, which would increase spending by about $1 billion. Investments would increase in NJ Transit, education and a record public-worker pension payment of $3.8 billion.

“Let’s work together to apply the millionaire’s tax to every millionaire. By doing so, we can do more to relieve the burden on middle-class taxpayers and senior citizens who are taking it on the chin from the Trump administration’s tax scam,” Murphy said to a standing ovation from many in his administration and stony silence from Republicans.

The current spending plan expires July 1.

After the speech, Democrat legislators held a news conference in which they said they appreciate the savings Murphy announced but believe more spending cuts are possible and do not support income-tax increases.

“This is a positive first step,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney about $800 million in negotiated health care savings from the public workers union Communications Workers of America. “The governor and the CWA have demonstrated there is a lot more savings to be had.”

CWA New Jersey represents more than 30,000 state workers, 15,000 county and municipal workers, and thousands of workers in the telecommunications and direct care industries, according to its website.

An additional $400 million in CWA health care savings will be shared by county and municipal governments, Democrats said.

“I heard some good things — school aid is increased ... but I’m not too excited about a new tax,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic. “From the legislative side, we have to look for different ways than a new tax. We have to get more efficient in government and cut more.”

Mazzeo was also happy to hear Murphy say he intends to work with legislative leaders and the Legislature as a whole on the budget.

Murphy asked for the millionaire’s tax in last year’s budget address but didn’t get it. Instead, he and other Democrats negotiated a tax increase on those making $5 million a year and more.

“Let’s be absolutely clear — this is not a tax that will be paid by anyone in the middle class,” said Murphy. “But it is revenue that is necessary to strengthen and expand the middle class.”

The governor says his proposed hike would generate about $450 million and would apply to about 18,000 residents with incomes from $1 million to $5 million.

He’s also seeking what he calls a “corporate responsibility fee” of $150 per worker for large employers with more than 50 employees who use Medicaid for health care. He says the fee would incentivize employers to provide benefits.

State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said New Jerseyans rate their quality of life at an all-time low and are moving out of state in record numbers “because they are already overtaxed, overfee’d and over-tolled.”

He opposes another tax increase, which he predicted will drive more families out of state, “eliminating our middle class, leaving only the really rich and the really poor.” He called for “property-tax relief to make New Jersey more affordable so our middle-class families can raise their kids and retire here some day.”

“New Jersey spends too much, and we tax too much,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, R-Morris, Somerset, Union, in a Republican news conference after the speech. “I didn’t hear anything about that.”

Republicans also said the governor’s revenue forecast was too rosy for 2019, and the state was about $700 million behind in revenues as of January. They called for a new way to forecast revenues, calling current methods “guesswork.”

Murphy also reiterated a call for legalizing recreational marijuana.

“Most importantly, this is the right step for eliminating decades-old and persistent racial and social inequities,” said Murphy, who said he will only sign a bill that includes expungement of records of those put through the criminal justice system for prior marijuana offenses.

“It is also our chance to create an entirely new state-based industry with the potential to create thousands of good-paying jobs, expand opportunities for minority business owners and jump-start billions of dollars in new economic activity,” said Murphy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

clowe-pressofac / provided  

MCCOOLEY Melissa McCooley

Lawsuit against Miss America Organization dismissed

A former board member of the Miss America Organization has voluntarily dismissed a lawsuit she and four former Miss America state licensees filed claiming the group’s new executives unlawfully took control of the MAO.

Jennifer Vaden Barth, a former MAO trustee, announced on social media Tuesday they did not have the funds to move the suit forward.

“At this juncture, I can do no more than what I’ve done. Continuing litigation will cost at least as much as we have already raised. In light of not having those funds available, I regretfully share that I have dismissed the case,” Vaden Barth said in a statement posted on Facebook and a GoFundMe page started to raise money for the suit.

“This is a reflection of the meritless and misguided nature of her suit and her false and defamatory claims,” the MAO said in a statement. “MAO disagrees with Ms. Barth’s characterization of the dialogue regarding ending this lawsuit and is now assessing its next steps.”

The lawsuit, filed in January 2018, claimed MAO Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper orchestrated an “illegal and bad-faith takeover” of the MAO.

The civil lawsuit filed in Atlantic County was not seeking monetary reward, but rather changes to the organization’s structure and governance over the 51 state pageants.

Volunteers with the organization claimed there had been a lack of transparency over the MAO’s decision making, including the elimination of the swimsuit competition and revoking licenses from seven states, including the four named in the suit, West Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

“I believe there is no real understanding or compassion for the countless volunteers who have dedicated years of service, let alone continually investing in and celebrating the goals and achievements of the exceptional young women who participate,” Vaden Barth said.

Miss America 2019 Nia Franklin visiting Pennsylvania Avenue School

Vaden Barth said in her post that after a preliminary injunction hearing two months ago, the MAO put forth an offer to settle.

“I couldn’t accept what MAO offered because I believed it did not include any proposed changes that would ultimately improve the short- and long-term health of the organization,” she said.

Vaden Barth also claimed she put forth her own proposal to improve MAO governance and transparency but was rejected.

She said the proposal did not include changing the makeup of the board, but included suggestions such as that guidelines for board member voting be available to Miss America volunteers and stakeholders online. Vaden Barth said she also asked the MAO to consider amending current bylaws as well as state and Miss America contracts, “so that fair dealings would be explicit and articulated in every way.”

Vaden Barth posted on the GoFundMe page, which went toward securing representation by New Jersey-based law firm Kim & Bae P.C., that legal expenses cost $39,422 over five months for five plaintiffs and public relations cost $2,750.

The GoFundMe page had raised $43,517 toward a $100,000 goal as of Tuesday.

Vaden Barth recommended the $1,345 remaining balance be donated to a scholarship fund — possibly the Miss America Organization or Miss America’s Outstanding Teen — even though she said they had initially planned to use remaining funds for a new organization.

She plans to have an online survey distributed to contributors to make a decision on the donation.

The case was “dismissed without prejudice,” leaving open the opportunity for future litigation within the statute of limitations should the financial resources become available.

“We could bring back the claims, but I don’t anticipate that at this time,” Vaden Barth said.

She said her decision also ensures the MAO cannot silence detractors through other legal means, such as non-disparagement agreements or threats of future litigation.

“I am proud that we have spoken truth to power and that anyone who chooses to become involved with this program will at least know the truth thanks to the actions we have brought forth,” Vaden Barth said.

PHOTOS: Miss America visits Richmond Avenue School students

Miss New Jersey Pageant Executive Director David Holtzman, who was installed in December, said he interacted with the national leaders when he appealed to get New Jersey’s license back. He called the new leadership “refreshing.”

“I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “This organization’s trying to survive, but things like (the lawsuit) make it difficult.”

New Jersey, New York and Florida pageant organizations have had their licenses reinstated and new directors appointed after appeals.

Tennessee, Georgia and Pennsylvania had new licenses awarded to new, separate pageant entities, and West Virginia is looking to start a new one as well.

While Holtzman said he doesn’t believe his state organization was affected by the lawsuit, Vaden Barth doesn’t think it will be a quick change for volunteer efforts to follow the new leadership.

“I don’t think you’re gonna see something happen overnight one way or another. It won’t be like people snap and fall in line, but also, I don’t think it will be a mass exit from the organization. People are going to have to decide for themselves,” she said.

lcarroll-pressofac / Provided / Miss America Organization/  

Vaden-Barth Jennifer Vaden-Barth, Miss North Carolina 1991, was elected to the Miss America Organization Board of Directors. (Feb 23, 2018)

Offshore wind, nuclear subsidies draw lobbying dollars

South Jersey was in the eye of the storm for lobbying in New Jersey in 2018, with two of the three biggest drivers of spending — nuclear plants and offshore wind energy producers — focused here.

A report released Monday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission said spending for and against ratepayer subsidies for nuclear plants drew the largest amount of spending at $5 million, which was about what they spent last year as well.

Firms hoping to install wind turbines off the New Jersey coast increased spending 234 percent from $261,664 in 2017 to $874,679 in 2018; and businesses and groups that support or oppose legalization of recreational marijuana increased spending 313 percent from $330,935 in 2017 to $1,365,362 in 2018.

While overall spending on lobbying — the practice of attempting to influence government — was down slightly from 2017’s record spending to $89.4 million, annual reports filed with the ELEC showed expenditures rose substantially in areas in which the Legislature is making decisions that could make or break companies.

The state’s remaining nuclear plants — Salem I, Salem II and Hope Creek, owned by Public Service Enterprise Group — are on the Delaware River in Salem County. Exelon, the owner of Atlantic City Electric and of the now-closed Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey Township, holds a minority interest in one of them.

About 45 percent of the $5 million went to lobby on behalf of the nuclear subsidies, at $2.3 million, and about 55 percent was spent to oppose them, at $2.8 million.

Legislation to create a subsidy program passed the Legislature and was signed into law last year by Gov. Phil Murphy, as a way of keeping nuclear energy — which does not release greenhouse gases believed to contribute to climate change — in the state’s generation mix.

PSEG spent the most lobbying on the issue. It spent almost $1.5 million in 2018 and almost $2.4 million in 2017. It was followed by First Energy/Jersey Central Power & Light and Exelon Generation Co.

“The ELEC report shows the majority of our spending was for public education — to increase public awareness of the many benefits that nuclear energy provides,” said PSEG spokesman Michael Jennings. “At the start of the discussion, few people were aware of the environmental, reliability and economic benefits the plants provide.”

Those lobbying against the subsidies, such as the AARP and the NJ Coalition for Fair Energy, spent much less individually, but there were more entities participating.

Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, called lobbying a vital and fundamental part of democracy.

Michael Klein, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, said the lobbying report shows how Murphy’s priorities of alternative energy and recreational marijuana have caused those issues to heat up.

“Yes, they are advocates for their point of view, but they add a lot of information for legislators and other policymakers to weigh at the end of the day,” said Klein.

The state Board of Public Utilities is reviewing financial documents provided by the owners of nuclear plants to see whether they will close within three years without the subsidies. If they are found to be likely to close, the BPU will approve the subsidies, which could cost ratepayers up to $300 million a year.

The BPU is expected to make a decision on the subsidies, estimated to cost the average residential customer $31 to $41 a year, at its April 19 meeting.

Orsted, which is seeking state subsidies to build a wind farm off Atlantic City, was the biggest spender on offshore-wind lobbying at $300,000, up from $158,000 last year. It was followed by Deep Water Wind, which merged with Orsted at the end of last year and also holds a lease for a wind farm off Atlantic City, at $90,000; Equinor, which holds a lease off North Jersey, at $30,000; and the industry group American Wind Energy Associates at $24,000.

Fishermen’s Energy, which lost its bid for ratepayer subsidy of a small offshore wind farm in state waters off Atlantic City last year, spent $18,600.

The BPU is expected by July 1 to choose a firm or firms to begin building 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind electric generation. Murphy wants the state to reach 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind generation by 2030.