Q&A with SLSD Board candidates


Oregon is experiencing a high turnout in school board candidates this election season and South Lane School District (SLSD) is no different — three seats are up for grabs and all are being contested.

When polls close May 18, this special election will determine a significant make-up of the seven-person body which helps shape the direction of local education.

Among its responsibilities, the school board sets policy, influences a $56 million budget and selects the district’s superintendent. Elected members serve a four-year term.

The Sentinel reached out to the SLSD Board candidates in the May 18 Special Election and asked them four questions about their potential roles in this system...

Candidates for Board Position 2

Taylor Wilhour (incumbent)

We moved here in 2006 with our first child and I’m proud to call Cottage Grove home and strive to make it better. We have kids in elementary, middle school and high school, so I am involved at every level.

Since 2013, we’ve built a beautiful new school, upgraded the swimming pool, had the best high school graduation rate in Oregon, and much more. Through sound fiscal management, we got extra money from the 2016 bond measure. We used it district-wide on technology, security and critical maintenance that had been delayed by years of budget cuts.

I am a thoughtful, dedicated board member who comes prepared, offers suggestions, asks tough questions and uses the best available information in decision-making. I have been involved since 2007 as a coach, parent and now board member. I am excited that we are leading once again in expansion of pre-K, vocational education (CTE), equity and professional development. Please send me back to the boardroom to continue this important work.

Pam Duffy

I am a federal retiree having worked for U.S. Secret Service and the Federal Office of Workers’ Compensation. I moved to Cottage Grove in 2003. I was involved in a grade school/middle school mentoring program in Seattle for seven years. Upon moving here, I mentored at London Elementary for two years but stopped to care for my mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Candidates for Board Position 4

Melanie Stuhlmiller

I am a mother to three SLSD students and a local small business owner. My education and past experience are administrative, but my passion is in education. Formerly a SLSD Educational Assistant, I was recently resigned to focus on my business and family during the pandemic. I’m very fortunate to have worked with some of SLSD’s amazing teachers, support staff and students in the past five years.

As a first-time school board member, if elected, I will encourage transparency and honest discussions between the district and the community. Education is at a pivotal point and I would be honored by the opportunity to represent our community as part of the school board as we move forward from this pandemic into the future of education.

Sherry Duerst-Higgins (incumbent)

I was born in Eugene and grew up in the rural farming community of Lorane, 12 miles west of Cottage Grove. I graduated from Crow High School with a class of 23. I have lived in Cottage Grove for over 40 years, raising my family, working and enjoying our community. I have three children, all graduating from CGHS, and seven grandchildren, two who graduated from CGHS, two who are attending South Lane, two who attend school in Eugene, and one sweet 3-year-old.

I serve on the South Lane School Board because I believe our children are our future. I got involved in school actives when my children were in school; becoming involved in parent club, booster club, wrestling club, the South Lane budget committee and then elected to the school board. I have been active in the state advocating for students statewide, for stable funding for our schools. After years of insufficient funding for our schools and students we must do better. We need better funding to lift the quality of education in Oregon; to make it the top priority. 

As a member of the South Lane Board, I will continue to fight for our kids.

Candidates for Board Position 5

Colleen Valley (incumbent; appointed December 2020 to fill the Position 5 vacancy for the remainder of the term- June 2021)

I was born in St. Louis, Mo., and moved to Cottage Grove with my husband and two children in 2009. I joined the board from South Lane Mental Health, began volunteering with the Parent Club at Harrison Elementary. I also started coaching soccer with SVA and joined their board soon after. I am currently part of the Lincoln Middle School Parent Club and was appointed to the South Lane School District board in December of 2020.

Erik Benson

I am originally from California and graduated from Sheldon High School in Eugene. My wife and I have lived in Cottage Grove for 22 years and I have two sons who are Cottage Grove HS graduates, 2012 and 2014. I have served for 32 years in the Army Reserve and will retire this fall as a Colonel. 

We own an insurance agency in Cottage Grove and reside on a rural property where we raise nursery stock.

Questions and Answers

1. As a board member, what would your priorities be and what impact would you hope to make during your term?

Taylor Wilhour:

Kids are always our top priority as a board and a district. Right now, that means getting them back into school as soon as we are able to safely do so and adding supports like after-school programs, tutoring and summer school to make up for the ground we have lost to the pandemic. The passage of the Student Success Act (SSA) provided much-needed funding aimed at the expansion of Career and Technical Education programs and increasing equity in our schools. I’m eager to get back to that work.

On a personal note, I look forward to helping in the classroom again and hopefully tutoring as well.

Pam Duffy:

My priorities are to assist in the following:  1) to increase math and reading proficiency ratings and graduation rates; 2) provide more Career and Technical Education programs to students; 3) increase parent participation in the board meetings; and 4) make parents aware of programs, such as Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Critical Race Theory, that are likely coming down the pike. Some of this may not sound pleasant to people, but it is reality.

My hope is that in effecting these priorities, South Lane students will have a better path for the future and that parents have a far better picture of what is transpiring in the district.

Melanie Stuhlmiller:

As a first-time school board member, I aim to learn, actively listen, ask questions and encourage community discussion. I hope that, if elected, community members feel welcomed and united with SLSD during my term and thereafter.

Sherry Duerst-Higgins:

The pandemic caused exceptionally high levels of stress for our students and staff. As they return to the classroom, we need to support their emotional and mental health, in addition to their academic pursuits, with staff and students feeling safe and supported in their school environment. This is essential for student success.

To create more opportunities for all our students to have a quality education and to provide equal education for all our students, we need adequate and stable funding for our schools. We need the district to stay on solid financial footing in order to create opportunity for strong student success and equitable outcomes for all our students.

If elected, I will strive to give all our children the resources and support they need to have the best quality education available, to listen to the needs of our students and to set policies that will enable the district to move forward with the equitable and quality education our kids deserve.

I will also encourage more engagement and involvement from parents in the development of our education to our students.

Colleen Valley:

My priorities would be to focus on recovering learning that has been lost to the year plus of COVID changes. The challenges of distance learning and online learning have been huge, but it has given people options to deal with their unique situations.

Taking a closer look at the positive things we have learned in the last year and finding ways to fold those things into what the district has traditionally done in the past would help move us forward and support the unique ways that children learn.

I would like the district to support families more as we work on bringing kids into a more rigorous curriculum; building stronger communications with families to support them as they support their children’s learning and get them involved in what happens at school. Communicating with the community gives us a sense of unity around developing strong resilient young people in our community.

Investing in the development of young people gives them a stronger sense of self-worth and connection with their neighbors.Cottage Grove takes pride in the way our small town supports each other in times of trouble. We can shift that energy to support the kids in our community when we are not in crisis and help create good citizens that we want to grow up and move in next door. 

The school board members also play a role in running the business of the district. I value the employees in our district and want to make sure that the district is a good employer by supporting a culture of excellence. 

Doing the right thing by kids and staff is not an “either/or” and both are a priorities of mine.

Erik Benson:

My priorities would be to support teachers and employees with additional opportunities for training and compensation to attract the best for the available position. South Lane School District has attracted outstanding teachers and this needs to continue, with the students realizing the success from this continued initiative.

The students are the future employees and innovators of the rapidly changing workplace and overall economy. This needs to be balanced with the financial limitations of the existing budget and projections going forward.

2. What do you think the financial priorities of the district ought to be?

Taylor Wilhour:

SLSD has gained significant additional funding, first from the SSA and then from the federal COVID relief bills and we need to use those dollars to maximum effect. Our new superintendent and the classified staff (EAs, food service, bus drivers, etc.) struck a deal to fix the outdated pay schedule and we will uphold our end of that bargain, hopefully sooner than we originally agreed. Lastly, our financial reserves are at the bottom end of what is recommended so we need to increase that to be better prepared for the unexpected.

Pam Duffy:

Much of a district’s budget is dictated by the state. Total funds budget for 2021-2023 being proposed by the Governor is $9,100,000,000. How much of these funds will be directed to the South Lane School District? Funding for Career and Technical Education is essential today as not every student’s career path demands a four-year college degree. As a new member of the school board, I will have much to learn in relation to the district’s budget, but my hope is to have funds directed towards this avenue and to have local business participation.

Melanie Stuhlmiller:

Financially, I feel, our district priorities should aim towards establishing safe and equitable schools, maintaining assets and increasing academic supports.

Sherry Duerst-Higgins:

To help our students navigate back to the classroom and their new environment and to help them with the impact the pandemic has had on student learning, the need to invest in our schools has never been greater. The Student Success Act funds will have a huge impact to close the K-12 education gaps. We also will be given COVID funds to help in the transition back to school.

We also will be using Measure 98 funds to provide students with the skills, knowledge and training necessary to succeed in future careers to be lifelong learners. The legislature’s current budget proposals for the state school fund falls $500 million short of what it will cost Oregon schools to maintain operations at the same levels as the last budget. If the proposed level of funding does not increase, it will impact our staffing and programs, and it will hurt the education of our students.

Colleen Valley:

I believe the district must set a realistic budget. Making sure we are on solid financial ground, using funds to support our mission, serving kids and supporting employees with a living wage.

Erik Benson:

Financial priorities should begin with competitive teacher and employee salaries to attract the best staff.  

Expand family resource services to support students and families this could benefit. Look for additional revenue from viable sources that were allocated for education to include the intent of the Elliott State Forest as a long-time resource for education.

3. What opportunities/obligations do you think the district has in providing CTE (Career and Technical Education) to students?

Taylor Wilhour:

CTE has always been a priority for South Lane but some of the programs we had when I first toured the district in 2013 have faced cuts or been shuttered completely due to years of state and federal underfunding. The SSA gives us the opportunity to revive and revamp those programs, like wood shop at Lincoln Middle School, and to create new ones. Everyone I know in education was excited about the work we were doing and then COVID hit, forcing us to change direction and reducing the SSA funding to a fraction what was expected. We are all looking forward to getting back to this work as soon as we can.

Pam Duffy:

Career and Technical Education is essential these days. The opportunities are there. I feel the district could tap into local businesses to partner in providing such training.  

Melanie Stuhlmiller:

I believe that the most important thing graduates should leave high school with is job skills. I would like to see local trades be more integrated into the CTE program.

Sherry Duerst-Higgins:

Career and Technical Education are vital to our students. South Lane will have CTE programs that focus on career courses that emphasize technical, academic and career knowledge and skills acquired in applied career context. These skills will insure better high school graduation rates and improve high school graduates’ readiness for college and career, to have our graduates ready for the next steps. 

Measure 98 funds will provide students the technical skills, knowledge and training necessary to be successful after they graduate. CTE introduces the student to the workforce, providing hands-on opportunities to work with our business partners, in the classroom, with experience in technical skills, and with the opportunity to job shadow and have an internship, with the exposure of what careers are available to them. These skills will increase graduation rates and improve graduate’s readiness for college and career.

Colleen Valley:

CTE is a fantastic opportunity for kids to get hands-on learning opportunities. I support bringing schools and business together. It makes for a stronger community bond and better outcomes for kids.

Erik Benson:

The opportunities continue to offer Career and Technical Education to students and will likely expand as new technologies come into existence and current occupations diminish in percentage of workforce participation or become obsolete. This effort needs to be coordinated with the community colleges in particular. Cottage Grove has had a consistent flow of students into the military and this has resulted in success for those that choose this option, resulting in students receiving excellent skills and vocational training opportunities. This option also provides the opportunity for most individuals at the end of their service obligation, the funding and support to complete a four-year degree program.   

4. The South Lane School District has a stated goal to create “equitable schools.” What does this mean to you and how should the board approach it?

Taylor Wilhour:

Equity is about leveling the playing field for people who face additional obstacles to success, whether it be poverty, discrimination, cultural and/or language barriers, etc., and fostering a culture that welcomes all students regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. The extraordinary efforts of SLSD admin and staff to provide technology and meals to students over the last year are a great example of equity work making a difference right here in CG.

SLSD was already putting together a panel to study equity issues in our schools and look for improvements before the 2020 protests began. While their work is still in its early stages, the decision to start by reaching out to students to be a major part of that effort was a great one. It’s a great decision because students see and experience prejudice and discrimination in ways that are hidden from staff and administrators and, after all, Kids Come First.

Pam Duffy:

Equitable schools or equity in education means all students receive the resources needed to graduate prepared for success after high school. The students should have the knowledge and skills to succeed as contributing members of society regardless of race, gender, English proficiency, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or disability. The board can approach equality in education by working with district staff to provide a high-level curriculum, ensuring the qualification of teachers, reviewing overall discipline rates and monitoring the district’s progress.

Melanie Stuhlmiller:

Equitable schools offer an education that allows every student the same opportunity to learn. Breaking away from “one-way fits all” traditions, equitable schools invite culture, diversity, and equality into the classroom. Skills and concept knowledge is measured through performance-based assessments and applied learning. To establish equitable schools, the board should form a team to identify what funding is needed, establish trainings and collaborations, and create appropriate practices/policies.

Sherry Duerst-Higgins:

A school culture of equity is achieved when student excellence and success is the norm for every student and staff. The school climate provides equitable resources and instruction for each student to ensure successful academic outcome for all and to perform at the highest level. The district is putting systems in place to ensure that all our students have been given an equal chance for success, accommodating learning styles and disability.

We must be mindful and deliberate in creating an equitable culture, having a shared vision and language, hiring a diverse staff to reflect the students we are working with and as a board setting policy and goals for equity throughout South Lane and proving the district with our support.

Colleen Valley:

To me, equitable schools look like places where all kids get a fair chance. Some kids come from backgrounds that don’t give them the support they need to be successful in schools. That looks different for every child. Meeting kids where they are and implementing support to bring them to a place where they can learn and benefit from their time in schools is key.

Erik Benson:

At this point, the South Lane School District has done excellent work in trying to provide opportunity for all students to progress towards graduation and overall success. This comes with the understanding that there are obstacles to success, with parents economically challenged due to the virus, single-parent households with little outside support, homelessness and other challenges that hinder student progress.

More can be done and needs to be done with the resources available and exploring other programs that may be available or in development.

Note: Ballots for the May 18 Special Election are expected to begin arriving as early as today. Those who plan to vote by mail should plan to return their ballot no later than May 10 to assure their ballot arrives in time.

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