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Central Jersey News from the Times of Trenton

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    Sorting through the madness and breaking down some of the best state tournament action so far.


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    Charles Nevius worked at the Quick Chek on the Brunswick Circle

    A good Samaritan who was struck by a car that was attempting to flee a hit-and-run crash at the Lawrence gas station where he worked has died of his injuries, authorities said Thursday.

    Charles Nevius, 35, a Quick Chek gas attendant, was struck by a gray Nissan Altima in the parking lot of the store on the Brunswick Circle on Tuesday afternoon.

    He was attempting to stop the driver of the Nissan after it struck a Silver Honda SUV, Lawrence police said.

    Nevius sustained serious injuries to his head and leg and was taken to is Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton. He later succumbed to his injuries, the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office said Thursday.

    Nevius' family and friends held a vigil for him Wednesday night at the station. He was known as Chuckie and enjoyed spending quality time with his daughter, cooking, playing video games with his brother and fishing with his Uncle Tommy, his obituary says.

    Police and prosecutor's continue to look for the Nissan Altima, and its driver.

    The driver was recorded on surveillance cameras wearing a bandana and a sweatshirt, and his vehicle has window tint on front and rear door windows.

    Anyone who witnessed the crash or can identify the suspect or vehicle is asked to call Lawrence police at 609-896-1111. Officer Andres Mejia, Detective  Joseph Radlinsky and prosecutor's Detective Dan Gladney are the investigators.

    Olivia Rizzo may be reached at orizzo@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @LivRizz. Find NJ.com on Facebook


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    Donald Ryland has been a leader of the union that represents Mercer County jail officers

    Prosecutors have dismissed sexual assault charges against Donald Ryland, a Mercer County corrections officer and former union president who was charged with raping two women in Trenton this past fall.

    Donald Ryland.jpgDonald Ryland 

    Mercer County Prosecutor's Office spokeswoman Casey DeBlasio said the office asked a judge to dismiss the case Tuesday, for investigating purposes. 

    "There are certain investigative items that are taking longer than anticipated, and the state felt it was in the interest of justice to dismiss the charges at this time," DeBlasio said in a statement.

    The charges were dismissed without prejudice, though, meaning that they can be refiled if additional evidence surfaces, she said.

    Trenton police had charged Ryland with raping two women in October, shortly after the alleged crimes. The Hamilton resident, who was 44 when arrested, was accused of crimes on Oct. 6 and Oct. 12.

    Ryland and one of his attorneys, Stuart Alterman, said Thursday the authorities never had a case against the officer.

    "Today was great day and justice has prevailed. The scars of the ordeal will fade, but never will go away completely," Ryland said through his lawyer.

    "He tragically spent 17 days in jail and 3 and a half months on a bracelet," Alterman said, referring to Ryland's jailing after his October arrest and later placement on house arrest with a monitoring bracelet.

    Ryland, who'd been suspended without pay following his arrest, was reinstated to his position Thursday at the Mercer County Correction Center in Hopewell Township, Alterman said.

    Ryland has been a Mercer corrections officer for over 20 years and has served multiple terms as president of the officers' union.

    Kevin Shea may be reached at kshea@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter@kevintshea. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     

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    Recent shootings have focused new attention on ways New Jersey law-enforcement officers can use the least amount of force necessary to defuse a tense scene while keeping themselves and others safe. Watch video

    It was the scenario every cop dreads.

    "I'm feeling homicidal," Edward Gandy, Jr. of Millville warned cops as he walked toward their car, minutes after the 47-year-old man had told 911 he was carrying a loaded gun at a city intersection.

    A short time later Gandy was dead.

    Shot and killed by a Millville police officer in late January, he apparently had no weapon on him. What he did have, according to statements his mother later gave to reporters, was a history of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

    While an investigation is still ongoing, and Gandy's sister Sheila Goldsmith says she doesn't blame the police for the tragic ending, the shooting has focused new attention on ways law-enforcement officers can use the least amount of force necessary to defuse a tense scene while keeping themselves and others safe.

    "Good cops don't want to hurt people who need help," says Patrick Guresik, police chief in Washington Township in Gloucester County.

    Cops train to use words before using their weapons

    Five officers on Guresik's 75-member force recently attended a training program in de-escalation procedures, where they focused on ways to control a potentially volatile situation before it spins way out of control.

    These are tactics police throughout the state generally learn, but it never hurts to have them reinforced or enhanced on a regular basis.

    During the course of their work, cops regularly come into contact with people in crisis, people who may be stoned, drunk, rage-filled. They may be in the midst of a heated marital dispute, or suffering from a panic attack leaving them prone to striking out.

    "We don't get called when people are having great days," Guresik says in classic understatement.

    Knowing how to talk people down, how to use words instead of bullets, is one of the most essential skills in a cop's toolkit.

    Deadly force by police has long been on the nation's radar screen, but it gained additional urgency with the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

    The unarmed African-American teenager, suspected in a store robbery, was shot and killed by a white police officer. The fatal encounter prompted widespread protests and calls for changes in the way police deal with suspects.

    President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing included de-escalation training in its list of recommended reforms.

    Granted, verbal tactics don't always work, and one of the first skills officers learn is how to determine when violence is likely to overcome reason.

    But the type of training Guresik's officers took part in and will now pass along to their colleagues is designed to help them make those split-second decisions, as well as familiarize them with non-lethal techniques that do not expose anyone involved to potential injury.

    Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.

     

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    Our wrestling writers preview all eight regions and make picks in every weight class

    The march to March and the NJSIAA Wrestling Championships in Atlantic City resumes Wednesday with eight regional tournament across the state.


    MOREComplete 2018 NJSIAA region wrestling brackets (printable)


    The top four wrestlers in each weight class, in each of the eight regions advances to the state championship March 2-3-4 at Boardwalk Hall.

    NJ.com gets you ready for the regions with preview and selections in all eight tournaments. Previews will be added as they are completed to check back often to get the latest information.

    • Region 1 at West Milford
    Region 2 at Mount Olive 
    Region 3 at West Orange 
    Region 4 at Union
    Region 5 at Hunterdon Central 
    Region 6 at Brick Memorial 
    Region 7 at Toms River North
    Region 8 at Egg Harbor

    Joe Zedalis may be reached at jzedalis@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @josephzedalis. Like NJ.com HS sports on Facebook.


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    A breakdown of what $161 million from an increase of the state's gas tax funded.


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    Athletes to watch and medal predictions for all 24 races.


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    More and more players are reaching milestones, while county tourneys take center stage.


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    "The state has failed to prove him guilty. He shouldn't be further incarcerated," the suspect's attorney said.

    The defense attorney for a Trenton man accused of killing Quaadir Gurley inside a North Trenton housing complex in 2013 has filed a motion to dismiss the murder charge against his client.

    Isiah Greene, 24, has been accused for six years of gunning down Gurley, and has faced three trials for murder and weapon charges, with each trial ending in a hung jury over the murder charge - the latest last week.

    The jury in his most recent trial did find him guilty of one count of second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, which carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

    Quaadir Gurley Quaadir Gurley (left) and with his children. (Family photo)

    "The state has had three attempts to make their case, and they've failed three times," Fury said. 

    Fury, who has represented Greene at each trial, is very confident that the court will accept the motion. 

    The previous trials brought in blood evidence, surveillance footage and witness testimonies from two women who were in the area of the housing complex when Gurley was killed.

    "In every trial the state has always brought new evidence to each trial to try and convince the jury, and I've always responded to have the jury come to the same result," Fury said,

    "The state has failed to prove him guilty. He shouldn't be further incarcerated," the attorney said.

    Assistant Mercer Prosecutor James Scott has also been trying this case since the start. He did not comment on the verdict because of the remaining pending charges in the case. 

    "I would like to thank the jury for their commitment and service.  They sat for almost six weeks and deliberated for more than three days," Scott said. 

    A status conference hearing to discuss the pending motion and the remaining charges is scheduled for next week in Mercer County Superior Court, in Trenton.

    Olivia Rizzo may be reached at orizzo@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @LivRizz. Find NJ.com on Facebook 


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    Students, faculty and staff at a Mercer County prep school gave up their hair for children in need

    LAWRENCE -- Deb Miliaresis won't have to wear her hair tied back while working at The Lawrenceville School's Bath House Cafe for a while.

    On Thursday Feb. 22, her birthday, and in memory of her father, she had her head shaved at The Lawrenceville School's St. Baldrick's Head Shaving Fundraiser.

    St. Baldrick's Foundation is a not-for-profit organization with the aim of raising funds to help find cures for children with cancer, and holds these head-shaving events around the country.

    At The Lawrenceville School's third year of the event, 16 participants - students, faculty and staff - gave up their hair to help children in need.

    See before and after portraits from last year's event

    Everyone didn't leave the stage completely bald, however.

    In something new for this year, a number of female students gave up their long ponytails to Locks of Love, an organization devoted to helping children suffering from medical hair loss.

    The students did the clipping under the supervision of volunteer stylists from the Mane Design Salon, in town.

    This year's effort has so far raised $12,885. On Friday night Feb. 23, the school is hosting a charity faculty-student basketball game to raise additional funds.

    Michael Mancuso may be reached at mmancuso@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelmancuso


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    Isaac Wood has been been accused of punching Rafael Jardines in the face and then kicked him multiple times in the head and body.

    The Mercer County corrections officer accused of beating an inmate in May 2017 will face reduced charges in municipal court, the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office said. 

    Isaac Wood III, 41, of Ewing, had previously been indicted on two counts of second-degree official misconduct and one count of third-degree tampering with public records or information, in Sept. 2017. 

    Wood has been been accused of punching Rafael Jardines in the face and then kicked him multiple times in the head and body. 

    His then fiance, and now wife, Trachell Syphax, 32, of Trenton, was accused of watching and not intervening. 

    The pair then allegedly filed false police reports regarding Wood's use of force.

    Wood's indictment was dismissed Tuesday, he will now face a simple assault charge in Hopewell Township Municipal Court.

    Syphax had her indictment dismissed earlier this month, after an internal investigation was completed. 

    "Given the severity of the discipline imposed, which is in addition to the unpaid suspension (Syphax) served from May 16, 2016 until February 8, 2018, the (prosecutor's office) found that no useful purpose would be served by further prosecution of the criminal case," said Mercer County spokeswoman Casey DeBlasio at the time.

    Although the criminal charges against Wood and Syphax have been dismissed, they must still contend with the civil suit that Jardines has filed against the pair for the alleged beating. 

    Olivia Rizzo may be reached at orizzo@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @LivRizz. Find NJ.com on Facebook 

     

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    The husband was a passenger in their car, which left Hartford Road, went airborne, struck a utility pole and flipped over

    A Mount Laurel woman who was behind the wheel when her husband was killed in a motor-vehicle crash in Delran last year was charged with vehicular homicide Friday, authorities announced.

    Tameka Lawson.jpgTameka Lawson

    Detectives arrested Tameka Lawson, 37, at her home Friday after investigators received the results of toxicology on her blood drawn following the Nov. 12 crash that killed Jamar Rentie, 38, the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office said.

    The prosecutor's office did not elaborate on the test results.

    Delran police, though, have charged Lawson with drunken driving, DWI in a school zone, reckless driving and related traffic offenses, including driving with a suspended license.

    The motor-vehicle charges will be put on hold pending the criminal case, the office said.

    Rentie was in the front passenger seat of their car, which left Hartford Road at about 11:15 p.m., went airborne, struck a utility pole and flipped over. Delran firefighters had to cut both from the wrecked car, and Rentie was pronounced dead at the scene

    Lawson was taken to a hospital in Willingboro, and treated for minor injuries and released.

    Prosecutor's Detective Brian Miller and Delran Detective Dennis M. Rooney investigated the case with Assistant Prosecutor Thaddeus E. Drummond.

    Kevin Shea may be reached at kshea@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter@kevintshea. Find NJ.com on Facebook.


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    The average New Jersey residential property tax bill hit $8,690 in 2017.

    New Jersey's already-sky high residential property taxes set a new record in 2017, with the average tax bill ringing up at $8,690.

    That tax bill is $141 -- or 1.6 percent -- over the $8,549 homeowners paid, on average, in 2016

    The burden falls hardest in Bergen, Essex and Union counties, where the average bill exceeded $11,000. Counties with the highest property taxes tend to be concentrated in the northern and central parts of the state.

    The new figures released Friday by the Department of Community Affairs closes the books on property taxes during former Gov. Chris Christie's eight years in office.

    Click to see the latest property tax numbers for your town

    The average tax bill was $7,281 when Christie came into office. During the two terms of his administration they rose a total of just over 19 percent, representing a significant slowdown in the rate of property tax growth from previous governors. 

    The Department of Community Affairs releases town-by-town property tax data each winter, each year's average predictably setting a new record for a state with the highest property taxes in the nation.

    But this year, homeowners are facing uncertainty in their property tax bills on several fronts, prompting worry that they could grow at a faster rate.

    Murphy says Jersey will sue to stop Trump tax law

    Officials from counties and municipalities warn they may be forced to raise property taxes in the aftermath of the expiration of a 2 percent cap on the raises police and firefighters can win in arbitration.

    While the number of contract disputes that land in interest arbitration are few, local government officials say those raises inform contract negotiations across the state.

    In the decades before the cap was installed, arbitration awards ranged from 2 percent to nearly 6 percent.

    While they're still hemmed in by a 2 percent cap on annual increases in government spending, officials say higher arbitration awards would force them to cut programs or take advantage of the exceptions to the 2 percent cap for things like employee retirement benefit costs and debt service.

    An analysis of the cap released this fall found it saved taxpayers $530 million on police and firefighter salaries and more broadly found the duo of caps saved taxpayers $2.9 billion.

    In his final State of the State address, Christie urged lawmakers to renew the cap he signed into law, saying New Jerseyans can't afford big jumps in their bills each year.

    "Seven days, I'm just another property taxpayer," he said last month. "And as another property taxpayer, I am begging you. Stand up to these interests. Pass the arbitration cap like you've done twice before. And do not return the citizens of our state to 7 percent annual property tax increases."

    Gov. Phil Murphy notably has not released a specific plan to lower property taxes, but he's said he wants to put an additional $1 billion a year into education funding that could relieve the burden on local school districts to raise more revenue. 

    And Republicans in Washington installed a $10,000 cap on the state and local taxes that will hit hard homeowners in such high-tax states as New Jersey, where property tax bills alone can easily exceed $10,000.

    The property tax break took the edge off the state's notoriously high property taxes, but the truncated version will leave New Jersey homeowners feeling every dollar of their tax bill.

    Murphy announced last month he's joining with New York and Connecticut in a federal action against the GOP tax law that caps the deduction and raises taxes on wealthy blue state residents.

    He's spoken in support of allowing local governments to construct support funds that would allow taxpayers to classify their property tax payments as donations that are fully deductible, and he said he's taken interest in a proposal made by Cuomo to shift from personal income taxes to payroll taxes, which can be deducted fully.

    Lawmakers introduced a charitable bill fund in the Senate, which would allow municipalities, counties and school districts to offer property tax credits worth 90 percent of donations made to these accounts.

    Tax experts, however, are skeptical these schemes will stand up to IRS scrutiny.

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    Samantha Marcus may be reached at smarcus@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthamarcus. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.

    Carla Astudillo may be reached at castudillo@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @carla_astudi. Find her on Facebook.
     

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    An unidentified public works employee missed the deadline for seeking the grant

    When Gov. Phil Murphy's office announced $161 million for municipal road projects and repairs on Wednesday, the state's capitol city was conspicuously off the list.

    That's because a Trenton public works employee missed the deadline for submitting a grant application for the program, which is administered by the state Department of Transportation.

    It is impossible to know exactly what Trenton, the state's 10th largest municipality, might have received had it applied. However, Clifton, a city of comparable size in Passaic County, was allotted $659,935.

    Adding insult to injury, the Fiscal 2018 awards from the state's Transportation Trust Fund were more than double last year's amount, boosted by the 23-cent per gallon gas tax increase.

    Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, who is not seeking re-election in May, told a television interviewer that he "extremely disappointed" by what he characterized as a "debacle."

    Options for a second chance at funding are limited.

    N.J. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-15th District, said he is evaluating the possibility of seeking a supplemental appropriation from the Legislature, based in part on the argument that state employees rely on Trenton's roads.

    Gusciora acknowledged that might be a tough sell, as Trenton was among 33 municipalities who failed to apply for the grants. Another 27 who did apply were not awarded any funding.

    All told, 505 of N.J.'s 562 municipalities are getting something.

    "I think the lesson is that towns, including Trenton, have to be proactive and ensure that grant money is properly applied for. Unfortunately, this is something that was just overlooked," said Gusciora, who is among several declared candidates in the race for mayor.

    City spokesman Michael Walker said Trenton has been in contact with Murphy's administration since the grants were awarded on Wednesday, as part of the discussion about possible funding alternatives.

    Murphy's spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Walker said that, while disappointing, the loss of potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid would not undermine Trenton's capacity for road improvements. 

    "Trenton has its own capital budget to improve its roads. The money we get from the state, we combine with our own money," Walker said.

    "We are about to launch a war on potholes we're paying for with our own money," Walker said.

    City officials have not identified the employee responsible for missing the application deadline.

    Trenton covers about 8 square miles and is home to about 84,000.

    Rob Jennings may be reached at rjennings@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobJenningsNJ. Find NJ.com on Facebook


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    The statement did not give an exact location of the incident, or what the school the student attends

    Hamilton schools and police issued a warning Friday about an incident in which a man in a car approached a township student who was walking to school.

    The statement, posted by schools Superintendent Scott Rocco, and sent to the media by Hamilton police, said a man driving a light-green, four-door car slowed and attempted to talk to a student walking to school.

    "The student made the correct choice by walking away and notifying an adult," the statement said.

    The statement did not give an exact location of the incident, or what the school the student attends.

    Hamilton police are investigating, the statement said.

    The statement did suggest parents or guardians use the incident as an example of being aware of one's surroundings while walking to or from school.

    "Stress the importance of walking in pairs, staying off electronic devices until in a safe space, and immediately reporting suspicious activity to school personnel or the police department. Please remind your child/children to focus on these safety measures no matter what school they attend or how they arrive at school," it said.

    Anyone with any information about the incident can call Hamilton Detective Geoffrey Nielsen at 609-689-5827 or the Hamilton police tipline at 609-581-4008.

    Kevin Shea may be reached at kshea@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter@kevintshea. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     

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    NJ.com's complete coverage from the quarterfinal round of the region wrestling tournament.

    2018 REGION WRESTLING QUARTERFINAL ROUND

    We are one step closer. The road to Atlantic City continues with the Region quarterfinals Friday night. Winners will advance to the semifinal round on Saturday morning. Wrestlers losing in the quarterfinal round still have a chance to make it to Atlantic City, battling through the wrestleback rounds on Saturday.   


    MORE: Wednesday night's coverage


    NJ.com will be your place to follow all of the action. We'll have live updates, results, stories, photos and more from around the state. Check back all night on Friday. 


    REGION HOMEPAGES
    R-1 | R-2 | R-3 | R-4
    R-5 | R-6 | R-7 | R-8


    NOTE: All brackets will be updated as results come in. Click on a weight within each region to see the brackets.

    Region 1
    • Freshman delivers biggest surprise
     Look back at live updates
     Quarterfinal results
     Semifinal pairings
      Continually updated R-1 brackets
    106 | 113 | 120 | 126 | 132 | 138 | 145
    152 | 160 | 170 | 182 | 195 | 220 | 285

    Region 2
    Look back at live updates
     Recap
      Photo gallery
     Quarterfinal results
     Semifinal pairings
    •  Continually updated R-2 brackets
    106 | 113 | 120 | 126 | 132 | 138 | 145
    152 | 160 | 170 | 182 | 195 | 220 | 285 


    RELATED: 'Most hated player in Jersey' still kneeling for anthem


    Region 3
    • Look back at live updates
     Recap
     Quarterfinal results
     Semifinal pairings
    •  Continually updated R-3 brackets
    106 | 113 | 120 | 126 | 132 | 138 | 145
    152 | 160 | 170 | 182 | 195 | 220 | 285

    Region 4
    • Milestone is quarterfinal steppingstone
     Undefeated Zach DelVecchio of S. Plainfield withdraws
    • 
    Photo gallery

    • Look back at live updates
     Quarterfinal results
     Semifinal pairings
    •  Continually updated R-4 brackets
    106 | 113 | 120 | 126 | 132 | 138 | 145
    152 | 160 | 170 | 182 | 195 | 220 | 285

    Region 5
    • Tenth seed continues to surprise
      Photo gallery
     Look back at live updates
     Quarterfinal results
     Semifinal pairings
    •  Continually updated R-5 brackets
    106 | 113 | 120 | 126 | 132 | 138 | 145
    152 | 160 | 170 | 182 | 195 | 220 | 285

    Region 6
    Look back at live updates 
     Recap
     Cooper stuns unbeaten Andre
    •  WATCH: Top-seeded Koehler of CBA scored a 2nd-period fall 
    •  WATCH: Allentown's Lamparelli scored a pin in quarterfinals 
    •  WATCH: Xavier Kelly of Howell advances on decision
     Quarterfinal results
     Semifinal pairings
    •  Continually updated R-6 brackets
    106 | 113 | 120 | 126 | 132 | 138 | 145
    152 | 160 | 170 | 182 | 195 | 220 | 285

    Region 7
    • Paulsboro advances 7, Camden Catholic 6
     
     WATCH Seneca standout wins by fall
     
    Photo gallery
     Look back at live updates
     Quarterfinal results
     Semifinal pairings
    •  Continually updated R-7 brackets
    106 | 113 | 120 | 126 | 132 | 138 | 145
    152 | 160 | 170 | 182 | 195 | 220 | 285

    Region 8
    Look back at live updates
     Recap
       Photo gallery
     Quarterfinal results
     Semifinal pairings
    •  Continually updated R-8 brackets
    106 | 113 | 120 | 126 | 132 | 138 | 145
    152 | 160 | 170 | 182 | 195 | 220 | 285


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    If the state Senate approves New Jersey Gov Phil Murphy's nominees, he will have one of the most diverse cabinets in the country - if not the most. Watch video

    In the best of all possible worlds, it wouldn't make headlines when a new governor appoints a cabinet on which women are in the majority.

    We don't live in that world - yet. But when Phil Murphy nominated three more women to serve as his closest advisers this week, he nudged New Jersey in that direction.

    If the state Senate approves his choices, the move not only stands to make state history, but also gives us one of the most diverse cabinets in the country - if not the most.

    In announcing his three latest nominees, Murphy brought the number of women in his proposed cabinet to 11, and the number of men to nine. The one slot he has left to fill is that of superintendent of the State Police, a role expected to be filled by current leader Col. Patrick Callahan.

    "For the first time in New Jersey in 242 years, the majority of the governor's cabinet appointees will be female," Murphy said at the announcement ceremony. "It has taken us a short 56 governors to get to this point."

    The first bill Murphy plans to sign as N.J. governor

    The past record holder was Jon Corzine, whose cabinet was 43 percent female. At one point, Chris Christie's cabinet was 29 percent female. According to Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, 22 percent of Donald Trump's Cabinet is female.

    The point is not merely to fill these important posts with women, but to fill them with qualified candidates who reflect the populations they serve.

    While the Senate has not heard from many of these nominees, and their appointments are not a done deal, we're impressed with the credentials they bring to the table, and the care Murphy apparently took in finding talented individuals for key roles.

    People like Zakiya Smith Ellis, his choice for Secretary of Higher Education, who serves as director of finance and federal policy at the Lumina Foundation, an organization working to expand student access to colleges and university, and to help ensure their success once they get there.

    And like former U.S. Army Captain B. Sue Fulton, Murphy's pick to head the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission and one of the first women to graduate from West Point.

    Fulton, who would be the first gay cabinet member in New Jersey history if approved, is executive director of the Women in the Service Change Initiative, which advocates for women in the armed forces.

    And like Deirdre Webster Cobb, whom Murphy tapped for the Civil Service Commission, and who brings more than 25 years of state government experience to the post.

    We wish these appointees a full and thorough hearing in the halls of the Senate, and commend the governor for fulfilling his campaign promise to bring diversity and energy to the government he heads.

    Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.

     

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    Head coach quick to credit others

    Steve Fletcher grew up down the street from a swim club, so along with his three siblings it was only natural that they put on water wings and dove into the sport.

    He, his two older brothers and younger sister went on to swim for West Deptford High School in Gloucester County, and he went on to swim freestyle events four years at Lafayette College.

    So it's only natural he became a swimming coach, right? Well...

    "I wanted to be a lawyer,'' Fletcher said the other day after team workouts, in preparation for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association (MAAC) Championships outside Buffalo, New York.

    "I was on a pre-law track,'' he noted.

    (Rider captured the MAAC title for the seventh straight year, registering 718 total pointsin the four-day meet which wrapped last weekend.)

    Fletcher went off the rails during senior year, when a pre-law advisor stopped him on campus one day and, as Fletcher recalls, told him, "Fletch, your grades aren't very good. You can't get into a top 25 law school with these grades.

    "But you do a lot of things on campus,'' the professor added, attempting to soften the blow. "You're involved in a lot of stuff. There's gotta' be something else you care about. Do you really want to be a lawyer?''

    Well...

    With a degree in government and law the summer of 1992, as he pondered his future, his sister-in-law was completing her graduate assistant position with the Rider swim team.

    A former swimmer on the team, she introduced her brother to head coach Rich Coppola. As good timing and a little luck often does, that led to him being offered the job.

    "No law school for me,'' Fletcher said with a laugh.

    Some 25 years later, after five years as an assistant at Rider, then an assistant at Rutgers, then a few years as head coach at Franklin & Marshall, he is back where he started and is now in his 17th year as Rider's head coach.

    Along the way he has been MAAC Coach of the Year more than once, won seven conference championships with the men, two with the women and a total of 22 runners-up finishes. In addition, the Broncs collected 14 MAAC Diver of the Year awards and 13 MAAC Most Outstanding Performers. (Before last week's title)

    Rider has had several unbeaten regular seasons during his time, and teams continue to break conference, pool and school records. Outside the lanes, men's and women's teams have consistently earned national academic recognition from the College Swim Coaches Association of America for team grade point averages over 3.00.

    With about 50 members on the team, that's pretty impressive.

    While Fletcher receives the accolades, he is quick to credit assistant coach Shannon Daly. A swimmer and graduate of Bloomsburg, she has been with him since Fletcher took over. Adding to the continuity of the staff, diving coach Eric Blevins is in his seventh year.

    Fletch2.JPGFletcher, in black sweatshirt, with assistant Shannon Daly, right, as they both instruct swimmers. (Rider U. photo) 

    "Shannon,'' Fletcher insisted, "is really the reason we're good. She's basically the associate head coach. She coaches the men and women and that's what her title should be. If I walked away tomorrow no one would miss me. In fact they'd probably be happier because they like her better. She's incredibly over-qualified to be here.''

    Fletcher compares the diving component to track and field, where, he said, "You can't win a championship unless you have good throws and good jumpers. And we can't win a championship unless we have good divers.

    "There's a lot of separation with training times, because our pool is not suited for simultaneous work. We try and do everything we can to incorporate them so they recognize their value. We are constantly reminding them of their value and do the same with the swimmers. So, we have a unique environment where teammates choose to room together, they're friends, they're social together. People will perform better for each other. With a lot of other teams they're split.

    "We're careful of that,'' the 48-year-old added, "because we know how important it is to team success.''

    Senior captain Tara Maniace knows.

    "Fletch is awesome,'' she said. "He loves the team, he loves the sport, and if you need him he's always there for you.''

    Offered junior diver Bri Hatter, "He does a really good job of bringing the divers into the swimmers. Obviously he's not specifically the diving coach, but he is the head coach and he does a great job of knowing what we're doing and keeping us together. The same as Coach Shannon.''

    The athletes are in the Richard A. Coppola Pool as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 6:30 p.m. And some have classes until 10:30 p.m. Maniace, for example, competes in three events and some days has practice in mornings and afternoons. Some days she's in the pool a total of 4-5 hours. Plus three days of weight lifting.

    "Fletch is really attentive. He individualizes all our practices,'' said sophomore sprinter Justin Carey, who expects to compete in five events at the MAACs. "We all do our own specific thing, and I think it's amazing that the two (coaches) are able to watch over us and make sure we do everything to maximize our performances. We only have six lanes in the pool, but we somehow manage to get it done.''

    The season is not yet done. After the MAAC championships, the team will compete in several more competitions, concluding later next month at the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis.

    Still a lot of water time, a lot of long days, and still a lot of 5:30 wakeup calls.

    "Coaching is about relationships,'' Fletcher said. "We try not to make it transactional. We try and make it about relationships. That's probably the key.''

    Or, as Fletcher may have put it years ago, it's the law.


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    High schools with low test participation rates have little chance to rank among the state's best, school officials said.

    The score was nothing short of stunning for an affluent community such as Westfield, with its pricey school taxes and impressive SAT scores. 

    On a scale of 0-100, Westfield Senior High School scored a 63.1 in a new school rating system released by the state last month, placing it in the 66th percentile.

    That's worse than 120 other New Jersey high schools, according to an NJ Advance Media analysis of the results. 

    "(The score makes it) appear that something is wrong," said Paul Pineiro, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and programs. "And that's just not the case."

    Pineiro is correct: By all evidence, there is nothing seriously wrong with a high school that consistently ranks on Newsweek's list of the best high schools in the entire county. 

    But what helped sink the state rating for the school -- where more than half of high school students opted out of their state math exam -- is a change in federal law that mandates counting thousands of students who skipped their annual state exams as if they had flunked them. 

    The new way of accounting for students who opted out of the controversial PARCC exams in Westfield and other districts dragged down federal proficiency rates in English and math, which count for about a third of a high school's overall state rating.

    And it has left a number of high schools with low test participation rates little chance to rank among the state's best, school superintendents told NJ Advance Media. 

    "That we are then punished for a decision made by students and their parents... is unfair," said Thomas Smith, superintendent of Hopewell Valley Regional School District, where high school PARCC participation was about 75 percent. "And I think it calls into question the validity of those state ratings."

    Opt outs cost N.J. $1M, state says 

    Prior to the 2016-17 school year, New Jersey calculated a school's proficiency rate by dividing the number of students who passed a standardized test by the number of students who took it.

    The state Department of Education was forced to change that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law Congress passed in 2015 to replace the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind, department spokesman Mike Yaple said. 

    Both laws called for schools to test at least 95 percent of their students as sort of safeguard to prevent schools from discouraging low-performing students from taking state exams. 

    But, now, schools must report proficiency rates as if 95 percent of students took the tests - even if they didn't, according to the Education Commission of the States, an organization that tracks education policy. 

    In other words, if a school has 100 students eligible to take a PARCC test, only five students can opt out before a state starts counting skipped tests as students who couldn't pass the exam. 

    That leaves some schools with especially high opt-out rates -- including those in affluent areas where parents and students have enthusiastically embraced the anti-PARCC movement -- facing deceivingly low proficiency rates. 

    "States are jammed in the sense that they have to do this," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a national non-profit group critical of standardized tests. "The dilemma that states face is complying with federal law while recognizing that their required calculation can be misleading."

    Misleading is how several superintendents described their high school's state ratings, which are based 35 percent on PARCC proficiency, 50 percent on graduation rate and 15 percent on chronic absenteeism. 

    Each category is weighted 50 percent on a school's overall performance and 50 percent on the performance of important subgroups, such as African American, Hispanic, special education or economically disadvantaged students. 

    For some schools, such as Chatham High School, opt-outs made all the difference. Only 62 percent of students took the state English test and 43 percent took the math exam, making Chatham's ratings look like this: 

    • 90th percentile for four-year graduation rate
    • 90th percentile for chronic absenteeism
    • 73rd percentile for five-year graduation rate 
    • 71st percentile for English proficiency
    • 41st percentile for math proficiency 

    The school's final score in the state ratings? A 73.6 on the 100-point scale, placing it 76th-best among the state's high schools. That's significantly worse than Chatham's seventh-place rating in U.S. News and World Report's list of best New Jersey high schools and its 32nd-place ranking for average SAT score.

    Michael LaSusa, the district superintendent, suggested the state incorporate results from tests his students are actually taking, such as the SAT or Advanced Placement exams.  

    "For some of us that don't have many students taking PARCC, it just seems like such an arbitrary selection of criteria," LaSusa said. 

    While opt outs aren't the only reason for surprisingly low scores in some districts, they were a factor in the state ratings of Ridge High School, Montclair High School, Princeton High School and Colts Neck High School, all of which saw high opt-out rates and scored outside of the state's top 100 high schools. 

    The state has downplayed the significance of the new ratings, which were devised to identify the bottom five percent of schools -- those that need extra attention to  help improve performance. 

    The Department of Education did not publish the ratings on the summary report cards designed for parents and it has acknowledged the ratings don't tell the full story of a school's strengths and weaknesses. 

    The ratings and data points are meant to start conversations about how schools can improve, the state said. 

    "There are a number of indicators that are not affected by the participation rate," Yaple, the department spokesman said. "We encourage people to look not just at one particular indicator, but rather all indicators." 

    The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said the opt-out effect on state ratings only adds to its concerns about PARCC tests.

    "If you need an example of why these proficiency ratings are meaningless, I can't think of a better one," spokesman Steve Baker said. 

    Staff writer Carla Astudillo contributed to this report. 

    Adam Clark may be reached at adam_clark@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @realAdamClarkFind NJ.com on Facebook

     

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    The complete list of 2018 NJSIAA State Wrestling Championships qualifiers heading to Atlantic City


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