TOMS RIVER – New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney got a loud reception when he arrived at The Grove Restaurant in the Howard Johnson’s motel on the morning of January 7.
It was not however, the kind of reception he may have appreciated. Sweeney came to the township as the scheduled guest of the Ocean County Mayors Association.
Three groups of protesters came out to voice their frustration over the issues of school funding cuts, a vaccinations bill and the continuation of a bear hunt in the state.
Sweeney’s appearance was noted on the association’s website. The association includes all 33 municipalities in Ocean County and regularly meets at The Grove restaurant on 955 Hooper Ave.
Protesters began lining up around 7:30 a.m. with signs, bull horns and plenty of loud voices to chant their discontent about a state bill that would remove religious exemptions for vaccinations for school children. Others called for restoration of school funds cut by the S-2 state school funding formula which parent groups and officials have criticized for not being transparent.
The “Sweeney Showdown” as it was billed on a Facebook event was designed to “show him that we are not going away! We will not consent!” The event was led by the group New Jersey for Medical Freedom.
The vaccinations bill, S-2173/A-3818, was passed by the state Assembly last month but stalled in the Senate.
Sweeney said the Senate would be revisiting the bill in January, before the legislative session ends.
There are only two voting sessions left for this session, one is on Jan. 9 while the other is January 13. The bill in a 45-25 vote in December but it needs to go back to the Assembly for a second vote should the Senate approve it, for procedural reasons.
Among the vaccine bill protesters were protesters who are opposing state aid cuts to the Toms River schools.
The cuts to so-called adjustment aid were put in place by S-2, the law promoted by Sweeney going back to 2017.
Ocean County school districts in Toms River, Brick, Jackson, and Lacey school and Monmouth County’s Freehold Regional High School district were each hit hard with state aid cuts as a result of the passage of S-2 in 2018.
Sweeney previously insisted the school districts that are losing adjustment aid – nearly 200 districts statewide – are not paying their fair share of property taxes to support their schools.
The senate president maintains that his assertion is based in part on wealth calculations made by the state Department of Education through a formula that the state has so far refused to release to anyone, despite multiple Open Public Records Act requests from members of the public, the media and school districts.
Toms River resident Daniel Nemcek was among the 50 or so protestors who came out during the morning protest. For him it wasn’t just about the idea of mandatory vaccines but “it is part of the constitution in the United States. It’s like owning guns. If you don’t want to own guns don’t buy one but you can’t tell someone they can’t own them.”
“For them to remove the religious exemption is wrong and some people do get sick from vaccinations. I am 50/50 on whether they are beneficial. I’ve had the mumps, rubella and other diseases. It is not all black and white there are shades of gray between,” Nemcek said.
Rose Kaiser and Rachel Remelgado were two of the many Toms River parents who came out with signs and strong voices regarding their issue of school funding restoration.
“My daughter is a cheerleader and a member of a club and due to these cuts both of these programs will be cut,” Kaiser said.
“Because of S-2 he (Sweeney) has put our district in an unthinkable position and as a parent I am outraged. They are stealing from our kids and to remove sports and extracurricular programs that are needed for kids so that they can be more well rounded students and be more competitive in college,” Remelgado said.
Remelgado also called for the state to be more transparent as to how the S-2 funding formula was arrived at. “They are taking away our rights. I am really hoping a more logical approach will be seen. Pencils have erasers because everyone makes mistakes. I hope he sees that a mistake has been made here.”
“He can fix this,” Kaiser added.
Another Toms River resident, Susan Kearney came out with friends and members of the Animal League of New Jersey to greet Sweeney with their “Save NJ Bears.com” signs calling for the end of a bear hunt in the state.
“He is big in the hunting caucus and he blocks a lot of animal bills,” Kaiser said.
The two groups appeared to take turns on chants of “Just Vote No” concerning the vaccination legislation and “Fund Our Schools” regarding the S-2 formula.
Sweeney appeared to have entered the restaurant from the back avoiding the protesters who were in front of the parking lot of the entrance.