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Bridgeton community holding out hope for missing 5-year-old girl

BRIDGETON — It has been nearly one year since a 5-year-old girl went missing from a city park in broad daylight, and the community is still searching for answers.

On Sunday, more than a dozen supporters returned to City Park to remind the public that Dulce Maria Alavez, now 6, could still be out there. Alavez disappeared from a playground just behind Alden Field on Sept. 16, 2019, while playing with her 3-year-old brother.

“I still have hope that she’ll be found alive,” said Jackie Rodriguez, a former family spokesperson and co-organizer of Sunday’s event.

Absent from the one-year remembrance was Dulce’s mother, Noema Alavez Perez. Rodriguez, who said she was asked in March to cease publicly speaking for the family after questioning Perez’s level of concern, defended the missing girl’s mother Sunday but also encouraged more support from the family.

“She’s a shy person,” Rodriguez said of Perez, but later added, “She shouldn’t be hiding. You should do whatever you need to do for your child.”

Mayor Albert B. Kelly has attended nearly every organized search and community event related to the young girl’s disappearance. Before departing to assist at a local food pantry Sunday, Kelly said he remained optimistic.

“I believe she’s still alive because I have not seen evidence (to suggest) otherwise,” he said. “We’re going to find her. I know we will.”

Kelly said Alavez’s situation “changed the community,” pointing to more awareness among parents when in public with their children, as well as adjustments by the city. Kelly said the Bridgeton Police Department has increased patrols in the park and are working on installing a video surveillance system.

Doreen Holder, spokesperson for the FBI-Newark office, said the investigation is ongoing and that authorities “will not stop until we find Dulce.”

Holder also spoke to a concern that, according to Rodriguez, many in the community are fearful of: coming forward with information because of their own immigration status. Holder said anyone with information could contact the FBI “without fear of immigration enforcement,” or do so anonymously via the bureau’s tipline.

“What is most important right now is that we work together to bring Dulce home,” Holder said.

The FBI is seeking information about anyone who was at the park the day of Alavez’s disappearance, people who visit the park regularly, or “if you or your children have ever experienced an uncomfortable situation at that park.”

Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said the public should “remain vigilant and report anything that they believe may lead us to finding out who is responsible for Dulce’s disappearance.”

“No piece of information is too small, it may be that one piece of the puzzle that investigators need to crack this case,” Webb-McRae said.

GALLERY Dulce Day in Bridgeton

Public Safety Building question looms large in Cape May race for mayor

CAPE MAY — While the nation closely watches the race for president, in Cape May, the November election will also determine who will be mayor, and the future of the fire headquarters downtown.

City Councilman Zach Mullock has filed petitions to challenge Mayor Clarence “Chuck” Lear in the nonpartisan race, held on the same ballot as the Nov. 3 general election.

Mullock said he decided to enter the race out of concern for the future of the town. Lear said he wants a second term because much work remains to be done.

“For me, it’s been an exciting four years. A lot’s been going on,” Lear said.

One of the central issues before Cape May voters is a plan for a multimillion-dollar public safety building proposed for the site of the current firehouse on Franklin Street close to City Hall.

The plan, which Lear supports and Mullock opposes, would combine the fire company and the police department in a new, much larger building, to also encompass the neighboring firehouse museum. The police department currently shares a building with City Hall, which once served as the Cape May City High School.

Firefighters, and officials on both sides of the issue, agree the existing firehouse is in bad shape, plagued by leaks and other problems.

Over the past year, City Council has wrestled with the proposal for a new public safety building, which Mullock has described as both too big and too expensive.

City Council introduced a $15 million bond ordinance to fund its construction, but that needed at least four of the five votes on council to pass, and Mullock joined Councilwoman Stacy Sheehan to say no this spring.

It was one of a number of 3-2 votes on council this year, with Mullock and Sheehan in dissent. Mullock points to it as an indication of a lack of leadership.

A citizen group gathered enough signatures on a petition to bring a referendum on the bond ordinance to the voters. A “yes” vote would approve the bond, and act as a referendum on the plans for a new building.

But a second citizen group has gotten another question on the ballot, which would fund only the reconstruction of the firehouse, setting the stage for an unusual campaign running up to the election. That includes an estimated cost of $5 million.

In an extraordinary move, city attorney Frank Corrado drafted an explanation for the ballot, telling voters they can only support one of the measures.

City Council adopted the interpretive statement on Sept. 1, in another 3-2 vote. Mullock argued that it amounts to creating a third option for voters.

“The petitioners only put together two options. One was to build a fire station, one was to build a public safety building,” Mullock said. “I think it would be inappropriate to add a third option as a council.”

As Lear describes it, the measures are mutually exclusive, because the buildings would occupy the same site. Voters can say no to both, but can only vote yes for one. In a lengthy discussion Tuesday, Corrado argued that the voters need to have an option of doing nothing.

Mullock said he was not involved in the effort to get the second question on the ballot, but he supports it. He said he decided to run because of what he describes as a lack of long-term planning in town, including on financing.

“I know it’s a cliché, but the direction we’re heading in now is not the right direction,” he said, decrying what he sees as a lack of leadership and poor decisions.

The focus on the public safety building and plans to transform the old Franklin Street School into a branch of the Cape May County Library has meant neglect of other necessary projects, Mullock said.

Mullock is already a member of the city’s governing body, which in Cape May means he technically has close to equal authority to the mayor.

While in some municipalities, the mayor serves as the chief executive, in Cape May that falls to the appointed city manager.

Role of the mayor

The mayor instead leads the City Council meetings, acting much the same way as the City Council president in Ocean City and other towns.

He also holds some ceremonial powers, and signs contracts on behalf of the city, once approved by City Council.

“I hate to use the word ‘figurehead,’ but that’s really what you are,” said Lear. Under Cape May’s form of government, the city manager acts under the direction of council, with no direct contact between elected officials and city employees. “I couldn’t go to the public works superintendent and ask him to do something.”

But while the mayor has limited official powers, the mayor does have additional influence, with many looking to the person holding the position to speak on behalf of the city and to set the direction.

“You are the face of the community,” Lear said.

If Mullock wins, he will step down from his current seat, and council will appoint a new member to serve until the next election. If Lear wins, Mullock will remain on council.

Lear said he would be able to work with Mullock despite the challenge.

“Sure, it’s been many three-two votes on council. We’ve had our differences. When it’s over, we continue to work together,” he said.

Lear, 62, retired in 2015 as a Cape May Police lieutenant. Mullock, 35, works in two family businesses, Cape May National Golf Club and The Chalfonte Hotel.

“We need leadership to take on the discord in town, take on these projects and bring the citizens together,” said Mullock.

With a short run between the Aug. 31 deadline to appear on the ballot and the Nov. 3 election, this year’s campaign will be markedly different, both candidates agree.

Some groups that typically host candidate nights will not this year, and few will want to see candidates knocking on doors or shaking hands on the corner during a pandemic.

“It’s been a horrible year. We’ve managed to bounce back and do pretty well overall,” Lear said.

Councilwoman Patricia Hendricks, a consistent Lear ally on the governing body, is also up for reelection. She faces two challengers, Mark DiSanto and Chris Bezaire.

Hendricks was not immediately available for comment. DiSanto could not be contacted for an interview.

Bezaire declined to comment for this story, saying he would be ready for an interview this week.

Atlantic City moving forward with plans for alternative high school

ATLANTIC CITY — City school officials are proceeding with plans to open their own alternative high school this year after pulling out of the county system last spring due to concerns about student success.

At its meeting last month, the Atlantic City Board of Education approved a contract with Camelot Education Resources for an alternative education program from Aug. 19, 2020, through June 30, 2023, with certain contingencies.

The cost of the contract will be between $1.7 million and $2.4 million depending on the facility where the school will be housed and based on having 90 students. The cost would increase as the number of students increases.

Camelot runs alternative high school programs in Millville and Vineland.

Last spring, Atlantic City, the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District (which operates three area high schools) and Pleasantville all decided to pull students from the county alternative school program run by the vocational school district.

There were roughly 85 students enrolled in the Atlantic County Alternative High School during the 2019-20 school year.

The Alternative High School, which operated for 30 years, was for students who experienced attendance, behavior or achievement problems in traditional educational settings.

It was funded through tuition from a student’s sending district.

Greater Egg Harbor Regional Superintendent John Keenan was unavailable for comment on where students in his district would attend school this year. Pleasantville Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee said her district plans to partner with Atlantic City on its new program.

Atlantic City Superitendent Barry Caldwell said the new program’s name is still being determined, but it would not hearken to the district’s former alternative program, Viking Academy, which came under scrutiny due to the cost of the program at $45,000 per student.

Viking Academy closed in 2014 after operating for 12 years.

The location for the school has also not been finalized, but Caldwell said it would be within a 20-mile radius of the city.

Camelot Deputy Superintendent Milt Alexander, Regional Director Matt Kass and Ray Strickland, the executive director for the new Atlantic County program, said they are in the planning stages and hope to be open sometime in the late fall or early winter.

Alexander said Camelot refers to its students as “deserving students” instead of “at-risk” because they deserve the help the program can give them.

Camelot’s programs in Vineland (Cunningham Academy) and Millville (Thunderbolt Academy) serve 140 and 90 students, respectively. The Atlantic City program could serve 90 in its first year, with 50 spots reserved for students from the district, 20 from Pleasantville and an additional 20 spots for other area schools that may need a location for students. The program will be open to middle and high school students.

“We’re in the process of agreements. Our initial plan was not to really start the program in full force until around November. It may get pushed a little further than November due to COVID,” said Atlantic City Assistant Superintendent Sherry Yahn.

For now, those students who would be in the alternative program are in remote learning like the rest of the district.

The cost to Atlantic City would be comparable to what the district was paying the county, $1.2 million for about 65 students in 2019.

Atlantic City School District officials said previously they wanted to leave the county’s alternative high school program because they felt students weren’t getting the best outcomes, with some being sent back to the district due to misbehavior.

The district was forced to educate some of those students with home instruction, at an added cost to the district.

“What we looked at several years ago was a comprehensive approach to improve the atmosphere at Atlantic City High School, but also deliver quality education to all students,” Caldwell said Friday. “What we found was the alternative setting in the county did not fit the need of our deserving student.”

Caldwell said Atlantic City’s position as a casino resort with high rates of poverty among its year-round residents puts its students in a vulnerable position, citing research published by the Atlantic City Executive Council, which oversees the city government’s transition back from state control.

“For those students to focus on just education is difficult,” he said.

Alexander said Camelot’s priorities for students are social and emotional learning and academics.

“We are developing great relationships from the start,” he said. “We focus on self-management, responsible decision-making (and) relationship-building with our students.”

Students are evaluated on a quarterly basis to see whether they are ready to transition back into the general education program.

“It’s a collective effort between student, family, team and sending school so we’ll do what’s best for the student,” Strickland said.

Alexander said students in the Camelot program are greeted upon arrival by staff to assess how each student’s day is going, and those who do not show up regularly receive house calls. He said there is also a student government initiative and group counseling.

“It’s understanding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A student is likely not ready for math class or school in general if they didn’t eat last night or if their safety needs are not being met. We go through the entire progression and understand the situation as a whole,” Strickland said. “It’s our job to find out what that is.”

Atlantic City High School 2020 graduation