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Future of controversial West Bonner superintendent uncertain after recall of two far-right trustees

West Bonner County School District Superintendent Branden Durst, right, fields questions about the future of the junior high inside the Priest River Lamanna High School cafeteria earlier this month.  (James Hanlon/The Spokesman-Review)

Two leading members of the West Bonner County school board were recalled Tuesday in a repudiation of extreme far-right politics that have invaded the rural North Idaho school district.

A more than 60% majority voted to recall Chair Keith Rutledge and Vice Chair Susan Brown, according to unofficial election results from the Bonner County elections office.

Their removal will shift the school board’s balance of power to a moderate majority. But the future of the district’s controversial superintendent, Branden Durst, remains uncertain.

Rutledge and Brown were two of the three West Bonner board members who voted in June to hire Durst, who was an Idaho Freedom Foundation staffer with no experience as a school administrator or teacher. Durst’s selection inspired community backlash from many parents in the district who argued he was unqualified.

Trustee Margaret Hall, a previous board chair, said it is unclear whether Durst’s contract will prevent or make it difficult for the board to fire him.

Durst, a Republican who used to be a Democratic state lawmaker, has expressed support for publicly funded religious schools and banning gay pride flags statewide. He says he’s boldly remaking a struggling district, while his opponents say he is politicizing a community institution.

Western Bonner County is deeply conservative. The precincts that recalled the two board members overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump for president in 2020. Whatever happens with Durst, recall supporters say the double ouster on the board was an important moment for the area.

“I’m very proud of my community for coming out and supporting what they know is right,” said Candy Turner, co-organizer of the political action committee Recall Replace Rebuild.

Turner, a Priest River city council member who taught elementary school in the district for 25 years, said the results were a clear rejection of extreme Idaho Freedom Foundation politics.

Both Rutledge and Brown campaigned against a school levy that voters rejected in May, which has resulted in major financial challenges for the district. The failed $4.7 million supplemental levy represented a third of the district’s budget.

The recall petition organizers alleged Rutledge and Brown failed to uphold their oaths of office to improve public schools, don’t respect their constituents or fellow board members and have shown a lack of concern for student education.

Dana Douglas, the chairwoman of Recall Replace Rebuild, described herself as a conservative Christian. She said the takeover of the school district is an example of what can happen when parents and voters do not pay close enough attention.

“It could happen anywhere,” Douglas said.

The turnout for Tuesday’s special election more than doubled from November 2021, when Rutledge won his election by just seven votes and Brown won by 53 votes – though she faced two challengers in that election.

Douglas and Turner said the fight is not over. They plan to support the two moderate board members, Margaret Hall and Carlyn Barton, in the November election. The fifth board member, Troy Reinbold, also faces an election in November.

The filing deadline is Sept. 8.

“This community is not going to back down,” Turner said. “We are awake now and we are going to stay awake.”

Neither Rutledge nor Brown responded to multiple interview requests.

Their rebuttals printed on the ballot said they want more financial accountability and are defending against liberal agendas.

“Your vote today will determine the future of our district,” Rutledge’s rebuttal said. “Voting AGAINST my recall will keep a conservative majority on the school board that is working hard to improve the outcomes for our district’s children. Voting for my recall will hand control of our district back over to the very same people that are responsible for 60% reading competency rates and call that ‘a success.’”

Brown’s rebuttal said, “If you want a board member who will fight for financial transparency, work to keep our schools free of woke agendas, and demand educational outcomes better than 60% competency for our children, vote AGAINST the recall.”

Rutledge and Brown said they would bring transparency through a forensic audit, which they said the recall wanted to thwart.

Hall said everyone involved is still committed to the audit.

“It’s critical that we figure out how to come together and move forward as a team, as a community and as a district, for the sake of the kids especially,” Hall said.

In recent months, it has been typical for hundreds of parents – many wearing black and orange school spirit shirts – to attended board meetings.

Jeff Connolly, the mayor of Priest River, did not take a position on the recall but said it has been a divisive issue, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

“For some reason, people can’t seem to listen to each other anymore,” said Connolly, who was born and raised in Priest River, where the school district is headquartered.

He is hopeful that with the election settled, the town can put this issue behind it.

The recall results will not be finalized until the canvass and certification on Sept. 7, Bonner County Clerk Michael Rosedale said. At that point, if the results are confirmed, Brown and Rutledge will lose their seats. Until then, the two trustees will remain in their positions.

There are currently no school board meetings scheduled before Sept. 7.

After the results are certified, the remaining board members have 90 days to appoint replacement trustees from their zones, Rosedale said. If they cannot find a replacement within 90 days, they have 30 additional days to appoint someone from anywhere in the school district boundaries.

The appointments would be for the remainder of those seats’ terms, until the beginning of 2026.

Hall is confident the board will be able to fill the seats within the first 90 days. The board would make a call for applications, then consider those applicants through some type of interview process.

The appointments would not have to be approved unanimously by the board, but Hall is hopeful they will find a consensus.

As for Durst, he does not meet all the requirements to be a superintendent in Idaho and must obtain an emergency provisional certificate from the state board of education. Durst had avoided applying for the certificate all summer.

A spokesman for the Idaho Department of Education confirmed it received his application on Tuesday. The state board of education will still need to approve the emergency certification.

Susan Luckey, a longtime teacher and district administrator who was interim superintendent before Durst was hired, obtained her emergency certification in June.

Candy Turner hopes Durst will resign.

“We would like for him to accept what has happened and rethink his position here,” she said.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.