Monday December 17, 2012

SHEFFIELD -- After months of extensive discussion, a long-awaited elementary school plan for South Berkshire was submitted, skirting the querulous topic of eliminating an elementary school, but providing a extensive list of other ways to bolster early education.

Retired administrator Louise Yohalem chaired the South Berkshire Regional School District task force responsible for devising recommendations aimed at providing education recommendations at a price the five towns can afford.

SBRSD includes a sizable population of students from Sheffield, but also services students from Alford, Egremont, Monterey and New Marlborough.

A presentation was made during the newly elected board’s first meeting on Thursday.

Final approval and implementation of recommendations could take time though. SBRSD Chair Carl Stewart said he would recommend the committee create a subcommittee to prioritize and determine the cost-effectiveness of recommendations at a Jan. 10 meeting, which could push a review of recommendations back to early spring.

The 17-page plan covers a broad range of topics including bolstering early education programs, a cost-effective financing plan of district facilities, a robust communication plan and a honed plan on educational philosophy and content.

"We got a fair amount of work (to do with the plan), but it’s a good start," Stewart said.


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Stewart, who was appointed chair at last week’s meeting, said that the district’s top priority should be the selection of a superintendent that will take over for interim Superintendent Michael Singleton.

"Will it take precedence over the task force recommendations? It just has to," Stewart said.

Yohalem singled out the plan’s recommendation for expanding early education programs, better communication, and the branding of the district’s education philosophy core as a "true Berkshire education."

A true Berkshire education would highlight local efforts to focus on environmental sustainability, local history, fine arts and extracurricular activities in a small-class setting, Yohalem said.

There are many homes that are unaware of the "fabulous" work going on in local schools, she said, which requires a better communication effort.

"I am excited about branding ourselves..." Yohalem said. "We are special. This is something people can identify with here."

The plan glaringly avoids recommending closing an elementary school, a recommendation that was not supported.

One former elementary Task Force member, Jean Emberlin, created her own education plan and submitted it to the board.

"In order to re-direct our financial resources toward re-inventing our elementary schools, I am recommending that we close down South Egremont and the Monterey Schools," Emberlin wrote in her proposal. She complimented the quality of education, but said closing the two schools was the best use of funds for the children.

Yohalem said that the district could retain all the schools, but local towns would need to finance them.

"We feel if they value these schools they can take responsibility and bring them up to code," she said.

Stewart, the board chair, complimented the effort from the task force members. Although, he said that some of the recommendations were not specific enough and others would need to be reviewed for budget reasons.

"We need to justify the spending," Stewart said.