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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Controversial new West Bonner County School District superintendent faces major budget shortfall

Newly appointed West Bonner County School District Superintendent Branden Durst speaks with board trustee Margaret Hall at Wednesday’s meeting.  (Garrett Cabeza/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The West Bonner County School District has a controversial new superintendent who takes the reins of a district facing a significant budget shortfall.

The school board, in a 3-2 vote, approved Branden Durst’s two-year contract Wednesday night in Priest River, Idaho.

Durst, a former Idaho Freedom Foundation staffer, has drawn criticism from some who believe he is not qualified to take the district’s top position because of his lack of experience as a teacher or school administrator.

Durst has expressed controversial views, including advocating for public schools competing with private schools for taxpayer funding and expressing support for publicly funded religious schools. He’s also warned of critical race theory, a common conservative rallying cry despite how rarely such curriculum is taught.

He replaces Susie Luckey, the interim superintendent who has spent nearly 40 years in the district as a teacher and principal.

Voters in May rejected a request for a $4.7 million-a-year supplemental levy, slashing the district’s budget by a third. Eleven teachers resigned or retired at the end of the school year, a significant number for a district with about 1,000 students.

“I am laser-focused on improving our budget and improving our student outcomes,” Durst said in an interview Thursday. “And I will be accessible and I will try to make sure that I push the board in a direction to help them be accessible as well. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We need to rebuild the trust in this community and I’m here to do that.”

Durst’s annual salary will be $110,000. He will be evaluated by the board after one year to determine if the second year of the contract will be honored.

About 30 minutes before Wednesday’s board meetings, roughly 40 people waited in line outside the school district building to try to garner a spot in the meeting room.

Merrilee Brumley was one of the first in line, arriving about three hours before the first meeting.

Brumley said she retired from the school district, and her children and husband attended its schools.

“I just want to be here because I care about the kids,” she said.

Brumley said Durst is not qualified to be superintendent because he’s never been a teacher, principal or held another similar job in the district.

“When I worked for the school districts, the best administrators we ever had were the ones that started in the trenches,” she said.

Whitney Urmann, a graduate from the district and former teacher at Priest Lake Elementary School, said Durst is a politician first who has no idea what teachers go through.

“I am, quite frankly, terrified of Mr. Durst,” Urmann said. “He has no business of being in a school district.”

Trustees Keith Rutledge, Troy Reinbold and Susan Brown voted in favor of Durst’s contract; trustees Margaret Hall and Carlyn Barton voted against. The five trustees voted the same, 3-2, in hiring Durst.

The board, on the same 3-2 vote Wednesday, also declared a state of emergency because Durst does not meet Idaho’s requirements to serve as superintendent.

The state requires superintendents to hold an education specialist or doctorate degree, or complete a comparable post-master’s sixth-year program; have four years of experience working with students in a school; have completed an administrative internship or have one year of out-of-state experience as a superintendent or assistant superintendent; complete a graduate study program for superintendents; and receive an institutional recommendation.

Durst said he checks three of the five boxes, so he will need a one-year provisional certificate from the state Board of Education to serve as superintendent.

If the state approves the certificate, it will fund Durst’s salary, Hall said.

Durst said Luckey also didn’t meet all the requirements.

“For me, I have three of the boxes checked, which is frankly more than most people who would be in a similar position,” he said.

School board chairman Keith Rutledge wrote in an email Durst “has the broad support of the nearly 13,000 residents of our district,” and that he doesn’t think a superintendent needs teaching experience.

“Brandon has a wealth of training and experience that make him extremely qualified for the job, overqualified actually,” he wrote. “We’re very fortunate that someone with his skill set and experience applied for this job.”

Barton said Durst is not qualified nor able to fulfill all his duties as superintendent, even with the emergency certification.

She said the lack of transparency from board leadership is “very concerning.”

“The direction of the board has turned into a fascist dictatorship with an agenda which is far from our conservative point of view,” Barton said.

Fighting back tears Wednesday, Barton said she is fighting for students.

“I’m here to continue to fight for our community as a whole for what is good and right against evil and hidden agendas that will further divide our community,” Barton said. “So again, I do not see a need for our district to declare a state of emergency at this time. Our community will stand up.”

Hall told The Spokesman-Review the superintendent hiring process was rushed and partly done during the levy, creating a great deal of havoc in the district. She said Luckey was the more qualified candidate and would have brought stability to the position.

Hall said she is also concerned about the lack of transparency from some board members and worried open meeting laws may have been violated.

Rutledge wrote in an email Friday that dozens of concerned residents have been collaborating with him and Brown to help review the “incomplete and disordered public financial documents of past administrations, the hours of whistleblower testimony from those fed up with the poor administration of the district, and Idaho State Code to help the Board bring to light the core administrative failures and potential corruption that created the precipitous decline of our educational performance for our students …”

“There are a number of concerned district and county residents who wish to reform the past mal-administration of the district that has led to a near total lack of financial transparency and some of the poorest educational outcomes in the state,” he wrote.

On Wednesday, the school board held two meetings. The first concerned Durst’s contract and the second covered the district’s budget for the upcoming school year. Members of the public routinely shouted remarks to the board about legal codes and various opinions throughout the meetings.

About 30 attendees filled the room to capacity, which left some standing in the hallway to listen.

Durst gave up his seat for an attendee and sat in a room behind the board for the first meeting. After his contract was approved, he replaced Luckey at the trustees table to participate in the budget hearing.

The board was scheduled to discuss Durst’s contract in an executive session, or only among board members and district staff, but Hall argued successfully in her motion that the contract needed to be reviewed in open session where members of the public could attend.

The matter was ultimately discussed in public and his contract was approved.

Durst asked for certain benefits in his contract with which some trustees and community members took issue. They included a four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle for professional and personal use and legal counsel for his wife.

The finalized contract does not include a vehicle for Durst. The legal counsel for his wife, which drew deep debate among trustees Wednesday, is pending.

Durst said he took the contract’s language regarding his spouse directly from the Coeur d’Alene School District superintendent’s contract, and that the attorney who examined Durst’s contract had no issue with it.

Durst said preliminary contract negotiations are supposed to be private, and he felt airing them out in public violated his rights as a potential employee.

“I’m getting past that, but that was quite frustrating, if I’m being candid,” he said.

Durst said he expected many of the benefits he requested would be removed or augmented, but that a good negotiator does not enter negotiations with a “bare-bones” offer.

“My expectation was to demonstrate I know how to negotiate and, frankly, this district shouldn’t be hiring a superintendent that doesn’t know how,” Durst said. “If I can’t negotiate for myself, then how am I expected to negotiate for the district?”

Meanwhile, the district faces a major budget shortfall because the spring levy failed. The district will need to make major cuts, and extracurricular activities, like sports, could be eliminated or significantly reduced.

The board was scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Friday to consider adopting the upcoming school year budget, but the meeting was canceled about two hours prior to it starting. Hall said two trustees were unable to attend.

The trustees, on the same 3-2 vote, chose not to approve the district budget Wednesday.

Friday’s meeting agenda also included executive sessions on whether to renew “contracts of classified staff” and “potential reassignment of classified staff.”

The district’s website says three meetings are scheduled for Wednesday.

A trustees meeting is set for 4 p.m. at Priest River Lamanna High School’s cafeteria; a negotiations committee meeting is slated for 5 p.m. at the district office on Main Street; and a trustees work session is scheduled for 7 p.m. back at the high school cafeteria.

Durst said his goal is to prove to people he is worthy of the superintendent’s responsibilities.

“I think actions speak a lot louder than words,” he said. “So my goal is to really lead through my actions and demonstrate that I’m committed to doing this job exceptionally well.”