News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Candidates respond to voters' questions

This year’s Sisters School District (SSD) School Board candidates were asked tough and hard-hitting questions during the League of Women Voters of Deschutes County’s Virtual Candidate Forum last Thursday.

The virtual forum gathered the candidates and a moderator together via Zoom and was live-streamed for the public to watch on the City Club of Central Oregon YouTube channel. Candidates were asked questions ranging from why they are running for the School Board to questions about safety in our schools.

All of the questions were submitted by the public and reiterated to the candidates by the moderator, Jim Cornelius, editor in chief of The Nugget Newspaper.

Position 4 candidates Jeff Smith and Karissa Bilderback and Position 3 candidates Asa Sarver and Hilary Saunders participated in the forum. Position 4 candidate Jayne Simmons had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.

Parents’ rights in their children’s education, and school safety are matters that have garnered a lot of attention nationally, and the local questions reflected those concerns.

A question posed to the candidates had to do with whether or not they support the Parent’s Bill of Rights, a federal bill that also has state versions entering the state legislatures.

Sarver noted that he does not support it and believes that parents already have a right to a say in their children’s education.

“They have so by voting for the school board, and they have absolute access to the curriculum as well as three principles that have their door wide open,” he said.

Hilary Saunders questioned the verbiage of the bill.

“I understand where the intent was; I don’t think the intent was bad. Unfortunately, the idea was given to lawmakers, and they have their people to satisfy, and the way it was written... is extremely over-broad,” said Saunders.

She spoke to the uniqueness of the Sisters School District, where a parent can go to the school website and see the curriculum and talk to teachers directly about the curriculum.

“The way it is written, no, I don’t agree with it, but conceptually I do agree that parents should have a say in their kids’ education,” she said.

To Jeff Smith, the bill seems like “unnecessary federal interference.” He stated that all things iterated in the bill already exist at SSD.

“You can go to the teachers, you can go to the schools… and to create another layer of government that forces us to report to them that we are providing these things seems silly,” he said.

Parents have the right to a say in their kids’ education and can pull them out of a lesson if they believe their child shouldn’t be in it, he believes.

Karissa Bilderback spoke about the transparency in Sisters between the teachers, schools, and parents.

“We have access to what is being taught, and we have easy communication to the teachers who are teaching those lessons and availability of our administrators to get questions answered parents may have,” she said.

She believes that parents and teachers are partners in the kids’ education.

“I don’t think that something like a parent’s bill of rights is needed in our community right now because it is already there,” she said.

She used an example of transparency, noting that she, as a parent of a sixth-grader, received an entire lesson plan for a health class weeks in advance with the option of opting out for one, many, or all lessons.

When asked what recommendations they have to keep people safe in schools, particularly regarding school shootings, each candidate echoed their experience with school safety and what they hope to improve.

Jeff Smith spoke about actions already taken in Sisters schools.

“We have over the last decade or so limited access points into the schools… and we can monitor folks that come into the building as much as we can,” he said.

Bilderback spoke about her background as a teacher, and how heartbreaking it is to teach lockdown drills to students.

“It’s a real problem that we are facing, and mental health is where we need to start to get to the root of that problem. I would love to see more training on ‘see something, say something’ taught to students with kids needing to know anything that they see should be spoken and any tiny potential threat, big or small, needs the attention to prevent these tragedies,” she said.

Sarver said he believes that school shootings are a huge problem, and until the state and federal governments can guarantee that those who shouldn’t have guns in their hands don’t, we will have to deal with this at the local level.

“We have a program in place by experts [for these situations], and we have training for our staff to look for potential threats, but it has to go beyond just our schools. It has to be in the community to ‘see something, say something,’ across the board,” he said.

Saunders believes that mental health is a good place to start, and that everyone in the community needs to have an understanding of what to do if something is amiss.

“There’s instinct for a reason… we are small enough [in Sisters], and growing up in the schools, we didn’t have bully problems, and it feels like a large extended family because we are so small and we all support each other,” she said.

Maintaining community awareness and an environment that does not alienate students is important.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “it’s the person behind the instrument that does people harm.”

One of the final questions addressed to what extent the School Board should be involved in determining or altering the curriculum taught in classrooms.

Sarver noted that school board members approve policy, but the legislature hands down the curriculum.

“I don’t think as school board members we would be meddling in curriculum; experts set those, and we can approve it, and also not approve it — we probably wouldn’t get any state funds if we didn’t approve it, however,” he said.

Saunders spoke to the belief that school board members should not have the authority to let personal beliefs shape what’s best for the students.

“I trust in the educators we hire, that they are the experts in their subject matter and know how to alter their style to account for students and how they’re learning,” she said.

Jeff Smith believes in relying on professional expertise.

“I understood [the types of subjects I taught], I don’t know how to teach phonics; it is not in my wheelhouse; we ought to leave that to the professional people that are teaching those courses to determine what the curriculum should be,” said Smith.

Bilderback spoke to the curriculum as meeting the common core standard for each grade level. Teachers use the common core standards to develop the curriculum.

“I believe it’s more at the hands of the principals to make sure that the appropriate curriculum is being chosen to teach the common core standards,” she said.

The candidates ended the forum with closing statements reiterating why they are running for school board, and the importance of maintaining the culture that lives within the Sisters schools.

All of them believe Sisters schools are exceptional and that the School Board must work to maintain funding and a strong culture.

As Bilderback stated: “We want to continue the caliber of excellence.”

The last day to register to vote in Deschutes County is April 25, and ballots will be sent out shortly after that. The election is May 16, for the school board positions as well as the SSD local option measure, 9-161. To learn more about local option, see related story online at

To watch the full forum visit


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