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The Wrap: OPRA, Response to Covid, Colleges in Trouble

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By Herald Staff

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March 11 to 17

Open Public Records Act – in Jeopardy?

Legislators at the New Jersey state capitol building, pictured, are looking to overhaul the public’s ability to receive documents and records from government agencies. Wikicommons

So far March has been a very odd month for watching the antics in Trenton. Two identical bills (S-2930 and A-4045) were introduced into the Senate and Assembly on March 4. The bills aimed at an overhaul of the 2002 Open Public Records Act (OPRA), which provides the average citizen with one of the only tools available to peek behind the visible actions of local and state government. It is a statute that helps the public hold those in office accountable by increasing transparency.

The New Jersey League of Municipalities supported the proposed changes to OPRA, changes that otherwise produced a huge backlash from the public and even some state officials. Ostensibly the bill sought to modernize the statute in order to protect against individual privacy threats and to reduce the ability of commercial “bad actors” from overloading records custodians with requests for information that they would later sell for a profit.

The public suspected correctly that more was going on when the bill’s sponsors tried to fast-track it through the Legislature before opposition to the action could organize. They failed, and just before a critical vote in the Assembly, a bit over a week after it was introduced, the bill was pulled.

We are told that amendments will make it a stronger bill. The critical issue is, will they remove the threat the bill posed to open government? Officials tell us the bill will be back, either just before or immediately after the Legislature gets immersed in the annual state budget process. What we learned this time around is that there is a need for keeping a keen eye on what is brought back to the table.

New Jersey Wasn’t Ready for COVID

A long-awaited review of New Jersey’s response to the Covid epidemic was finally released this week. It offered some serious criticism of the state’s preparedness for the epidemic and the handling of the public health emergency once it was here in the Garden State.

The report was damning in its critique of national and state preparedness, pointing to deficiencies in the public health care system. More disturbing was the report’s conclusion that New Jersey remains “underprepared” for a future emergency.

The report walks a reader through a history from the first confirmed case in New Jersey in March 2020 through the peaks and valleys of the state’s response as ever-changing virus variants caused more than 3,000,000 New Jerseyans to contract the disease, with over 33,000 state fatalities.

For those who lived through it, the report recalls to mind the many ways in which Cape May County held together its tourism-based economy through business shutdowns, distancing and masking regulations, and school closures.

The study’s authors went so far as to say that “in hindsight” schools probably should have reopened earlier than they did for in-person instruction. Now the National Assessment Governing Board, formed by Congress to administer the National Report Card, has released a research paper on the economic impact of pandemic-related achievement declines. It highlights work by economists who argue that the nation will see significant drops in student earnings and other economic life outcomes due to the learning loss suffered during the pandemic.

Colleges are in Trouble

A prolonged period of declining enrollments, reductions in foreign students, the lingering impact of the pandemic and uncertainties in state and local funding have left a number of the nation’s institutions of higher learning in financial trouble. Adding to the problem is a growing public skepticism over the value of a college education when weighed against its ever-rising cost.

Since just before the pandemic hit, over 100 colleges and universities have closed their doors or sought consolidation with other institutions across 34 states. In New Jersey one of the state’s oldest campuses, Bloomfield College, will survive as a part of Montclair State University, a public college that stepped in to save the 153-year-old private college from closing completely.

It is a tough time for institutions of higher education. The perceived value of a college education is declining among those individuals with college credentials. This group views licenses and certificates more positively, according to a Gates Foundation study. Students increasingly want something tangible to show employers that they are career-ready. Skills-based learning is becoming more and more important as a way of demonstrating that graduates have the skills employers want.

What is true for four-year schools is even more so at the community college level, where new research shows just 16% of students who start at a community college earn a bachelor’s degree six years later.

Student debt levels have also become deterrents as prospects weigh the value of the degree against the costs. The Education Data Initiative calculated in November that the average cost of attending college in the United States is over $36,000 a year, with the more elite institutions at multiples of that figure.

What’s Happening Around Town?

The popular Stone Harbor farmer’s market, pictured last year at the typical location by the water tower, was moved to a nearby municipal lot. The change brought quite a stir at a recent council meeting. Photo via Stone Harbor Farmer’s Market on Facebook.

State grants from the Boardwalk Restoration Fund have been awarded to six county towns. In Cape May City the over $6 million in funding will improve the Promenade, which is also the city’s sea wall. Sea Isle officials announced the city’s $2 million grant toward its Promenade.

Cape May City set fees and regulations for the use of public EV charging stations. Users will also be responsible for parking fees.

The Herald won 13 awards from the New Jersey Press Association for its work in 2023. Awards range from ongoing coverage of important topics, to individual stories of public interest, and even to captivating headlines.

Sea Isle is as strong as it has ever been was the conclusion Mayor Leonard Desiderio came to in his annual State of the City address.

It’s budget time across the county, and the Herald offers a primer on the process. This week we learned that Avalon would have no increase, the county has announced a decrease of two cents in the county tax rate, and Sea Isle City will see its first tax rate increase in years, with a 4.3 cent hike in the local rate. Both Upper Township and West Wildwood will see small increases.

The state will allocate additional funding to expand preschool opportunities for students in 16 school districts across the state, including Upper Township.

School budgets are also under construction, with the Dennis Township School District seeking voter approval of $1.9 million in additional taxes. The amount is over the increase cap established by the state and thus requires a voter referendum. Last year Dennis voters said no to an additional tax levy for the schools.

Opposition to a Stone Harbor plan to move its popular summer Farmers Market away from the water tower lot was strong and loud. Council member Tim Carney says the council heard the concerns, and he will introduce a resolution at the next meeting to return the market to its water tower location.

It was a time for celebration as the county commissioners saluted the LCMR wrestlers for winning the Group 2 championship in February. Meanwhile, the Wildwood City commissioners celebrated the Wildwood High School Lady Warriors, who won the South Jersey Group 1 basketball championship.

Three residents took the West Cape May commissioners to task because of solicitations circulating from a adult-use cannabis retail establishment that the residents say are directed at children.

The county commissioners presented Middle Township High School junior Tatyana Moffitt-Ivens with a resolution from Rep. Jeff Van Drew honoring her for winning the Billy Mitchell Award for achievement in the Civil Air Patrol.

Cape May’s David Cluff was one of two pilots bringing the Marco Polo to dock in Philadelphia. The 1,300-foot-long Marco Polo is the largest ship ever to dock in Philly.

Avalon is discussing a four-year surcharge on all water lines to cover the cost of state-mandated inspection and repair of lead water lines. The surcharge will be $10 per line, per quarter, with the charge sunsetting in April 2028.

Spout Off of the Week

Middle Township — It’s interesting that newly built storage unit businesses keep popping up left and right in Middle Township, but we can’t build apartment complexes for affordable housing. I guess all those who are forced to couch-surf due to lack of affordable housing need somewhere to store their belongings.

Spout Off

Cape May County – Our world is physically sick; because we are spiritually sick.

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Wildwood Crest – In the msm you won’t hear about Trump falling asleep in court today .

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Dennisville – Once again, it happened. A Marlboro Memorial Middle School teacher was charged with inappropriately touching a student. Reportedly the incident occurred in plain sight in a school hallway. The…

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