School board hears community concerns about Northwood forest

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PITTSBORO — At its final scheduled meeting of the 2021-2022 school year, the Chatham County Board of Education on Monday honored student-athletes, scholastic teams and school staff who made the year special.

The multipurpose room of George Moses Horton Middle School was filled with state champions, outstanding artists and Quiz Bowl winners, each of whom were honored by the board.

Recognized student-athletes included women’s cross country state champion and Northwood senior Caroline Murrell and MVP women’s runner of the conference, Seaforth freshman Gabrielle White. Winning track teams were also recognized, including the Northwood men’s 4x800 meter relay team, which won first at regionals and third in state competition; the Seaforth men’s tennis team, which won its conference title; and the Jordan-Matthews women’s soccer team, which won its conference for the first time in school history.

The board also honored outstanding performances in scholastic competitions including Quiz Bowl, SkillsUSA, DECA, and science fair winners. This included the Jordan-Matthews Quiz Bowl team, which won the NCASA Winter Virtual Quiz Bowl League; the Bennett Beta Club, which won second place for engineering at the state competition; and the Chatham Central SkillsUSA team, which won first place at the state competition. A full list of honored students can be found at bit.ly/3GZpHuw.

Equity Champions for April, May and June were also highlighted Monday night. The recipients included Alirio Estevez, an ESL teacher at Siler City Elementary; Allyson Betot, an ESL teacher at Pittsboro Elementary; and Jennifer Ruff, a pre-K teacher at Chatham Grove Elementary.

In the wake of the tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, May 24, the board gave special recognition to Chatham’s school resource officers (SROs). All 11 SROs were given certificates for their service.

“These individuals become a valued part of their school’s culture, and serve as informal counselors and educators,” said Assistant Superintendent for Operations Chris Blice. “And of course, in these times of increased tension and unrest, these folks are our first line of defense in the areas of school safety and security.”

Northwood trail

After the awards recognition, the spotlight Monday turned to continued discussion over the future of the Ronald Horton Cross Country Trail at Northwood High School. The 40-acre plot was recently shown in a Preston Development proposal to the board of education about potential soccer fields and a Miracle League sports complex.

The fields are currently in the designing stage and have yet to be approved by any county, municipal or school administrative body. Despite the lack of formal changes, the land has been the subject of increased conversation on community listservs and Facebook pages.

CCS owns the property in front of Northwood between Northwood School Road and Charger Boulevard, which is why Chatham Park developers approached the administrative staff with plans. Chatham Park Investors own the adjacent parcel. According to Nancy Wykle, CCS public information officer, no trees have been removed on the property belonging to CCS. The only trees that have been felled are on Chatham Park property — near the Northwood sign, on the same site where a Lowes Foods grocery store and Zaxby’s restaurant will be built.

Prior to public comment, Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson submitted a letter to the editor to the Chatham Journal, which has on multiple occasions published misleading information about the site and encouraged its readers to lodge complaints with school board members.

“The land adjacent to Northwood High School where a Lowes Food, Zaxby’s and car wash are being built is not owned by Chatham County Schools; it is owned by Chatham Park investors,” wrote Jackson in the letter, which is also published in this edition of the News + Record. “The Board of Education has taken no action on the proposal. There are no imminent plans to move forward at this time. The first steps in this process or with any other such proposal is to inform our board and seek direction on whether members want to move forward or no. In addition, please know that prior to moving forward with any project of this magnitude, engagement and dialogue with town officials, community partners, school stakeholders and other supporters would be both essential and necessary.”

Jackson repeated the statement in the multipurpose room before public comment Monday night. He said there was no plan to move forward with construction at this time.

Vanessa Jenkins, the executive vice president of Preston Development, who attended the meeting, has stressed the importance of accurate information about the parcels being shared.

Some of the misinformation has been shared on social media sites and published by the Chatham Chatlist and the Chatham Journal — both of which are published by Gene Galin.

Jenkins told the News + Record there’s still no formal drawing of the current site conditions. She said while all of the property discussed for the soccer and Miracle League fields is indeed property of Chatham County Schools, both Chatham Park and CCS administration have emphasized no plans have been formalized or approved.

Jenkins said conversations continue to be in preliminary stages and Preston Development has not yet contacted the town of Pittsboro or the Chatham County Board of Commissioners for further discussion.

Four members of the public came to Monday’s meeting to speak on the matter and urged the board to not tear down the forest. All had some connection to Northwood as parents, teachers or students of the high school.

“This is a place I met lifelong friends, it taught me how to make lifelong connections, it taught me the importance of hardwork,” said Eric Williams, a former Northwood cross country runner. “A place that shaped my young teenage mind enough to inspire me to want to come back to this community to make Chatham County better.”

Williams said he was upset the trail was recently described as “unused” land. He said this trail was integral to both runners and the community at-large. Other speakers echoed Williams’ concerns saying the trail was useful for things like lab experiments for students and as a nature buffer to pollution from the adjacent U.S. Hwy. 15-501.

After the meeting, Jackson issued an updated statement to the News + Record.

“We want to make sure our families and community have clear, accurate information about what is taking place near Northwood and the status of the unrelated proposed project for the Northwood property,” Jackson said. “At this time there are no plans to move forward. We appreciate the concerns that have been raised and want to ensure our families and community have accurate information about the proposal and the land around Northwood.”

Other agenda items

Following comments on the trail, the board also heard from members of the Hispanic Liaison and unanimously passed several agenda items.

Students from Seaforth High School’s Hispanic Liaison program, Orgullo Latinx Pride, shared their stories of gratitude for the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with CCS. Students said the program helped them grow academically and learn more about their culture. The MOU between Hispanic Liaison and CCS was recently extended for another year, following its success in the 2021-2022 school year.

The board also approved a new Alternative Accountability Plan for SAGE Academy. The alternative accountability model is a supplement to School Performance Grades. Three options of potential plans for accountability were presented to the board: continuing to use School Performance Grades, using Alternative Schools Progress Model or developing its own accountability system. The board decided on the second option following recommendations from presenters. Under the new plan, SAGE Academy will receive a designation of Progressing, Maintaining or Declining, based on a comparison between test scores from the previous school year and the current school year.

Other approved agenda items include an updated Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) plan. The plan aims to improve equity in the AIG program through increased focus on student recruitment strategies. New AIG tools and strategies, which the district said were purchased using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, aim to improve equity through targeted recruitment at students of different socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds.

The final approved item was an updated Health Policy. The updates included further privacy measures for students receiving free and reduced lunch and ensuring future goals for school health policy are time-sensitive, as outlined by the school health advisory committee.

The next CCS Board of Education general meeting will be the first of the 2022-2023 school year. It’s set for 5:30 p.m. on Monday, July 18, at the Historic Courthouse in Pittsboro. For more information visit the CCS website at chatham.k12.nc.us.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

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