The West Bonner County School District has had a chaotic year.
Three superintendents have led the district since last summer. 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 small Panhandle district with about 1,000 students.
And the chaos continues.
The district’s Board of Trustees this month picked Branden Durst as its new superintendent, a Republican politician and former Idaho Freedom Foundation staffer with no experience as a school administrator or teacher.
The board voted 3-2 for Durst, with trustees Keith Rutledge, Troy Reinbold and Susan Brown in favor and Margaret Hall and Carlyn Barton against. Reinbold, Brown and Hall did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Rutledge, the board chair, trustees “chose from two applicants.” He wouldn’t say how many people applied for the job, although Barton said it was “several.”
Rutledge did not agree to an interview, but he said over email he believes Durst was a better candidate than Susie Luckey, the interim superintendent who has spent nearly four decades in the district as a teacher and principal.
“He has a vastly superior understanding of the legal, financial, administrative, and educational philosophy aspects of the job,” Rutledge wrote, adding that Durst is popular among Bonner County voters and “has the broad support of the nearly 13,000 residents of our district.”
Durst appeared on a Bonner County ballot in May 2022 while running for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction. He lost the statewide Republican primary, but took 60% of the Republican primary vote in Bonner County.
While Durst has his share of supporters, his selection has inspired fierce community backlash. Many argue he’s profoundly unqualified to lead a school district.
“He doesn’t have the background or experience that Susie Luckey had. Period,” Barton said.
Hailey Scott-Yount, a mother with two kids attending school in the district, said picking Durst as superintendent was “asinine.”
“Why on earth would you hire a mechanic to bake your wedding cake?” Scott-Yount said. “It’s terrifying.”
Durst declined to comment.
“As soon as the contract’s finalized, I’m happy to go on the record and have a conversation,” he said.
Who is Branden Durst?
Durst is a former Democratic state lawmaker from Ada County who spent time in both the House and Senate between 2006 and 2013.
He resigned from the Senate in late 2013 soon after KTVB reported he’d been splitting his time between Boise and the greater Seattle area. Durst said he gave up his seat in order to spend more time with his family in Washington.
Now a Republican, Durst worked for the Idaho Freedom Foundation as an education policy analyst before landing the West Bonner superintendent job. The Freedom Foundation is a conservative advocacy group that, in its own words, seeks “to make Idaho into a Laboratory of Liberty by exposing, defeating, and replacing the state’s socialist public policies.”
During his run for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Durst emphasized his opposition to the teaching of critical race theory – the idea that slavery, segregation and other racial injustices from the past continue to impact Black people today.
He also advocated for school choice and having public schools compete with private ones for taxpayer funding.
“School choice is one of the best tools we have in our toolbelt to stop the proliferation of leftist indoctrination,” Durst wrote in an April 19 tweet. “And as a Christian who strongly supports Christian education, it is also critical in spreading the Gospel to communities we struggle to reach.”
Durst is prolific on Twitter and unafraid to share his views. In the past couple of months he’s expressed support for publicly funded religious schools and banning gay pride flags statewide. He frequently jumps into discussions on gender identity issues and has said he believes transgender people are living in sin.
Scott-Yount said she worries Durst won’t protect gay and trans kids in the school district.
“While we don’t have an overwhelmingly large population of those students, I know that there are some, and I do not think that Branden will seek to provide those children with the same resources that others are given,” she said.
Jennifer Rummerfield, who has two kids in the school district, said Durst’s behavior on Twitter concerns her.
“He’s very childish and immature,” Rummerfield said.
She pointed to a Twitter interaction from June 8 when Durst announced he’d landed the superintendent job.
Former West Bonner County School District student Giovanni Flavel commented on Durst’s post, “Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse.”
Flavel’s Tweet prompted a reply from Presbyterian pastor and Durst supporter Lucas Baumbach, who wrote, “Don’t cry. I think he feeds on your tears.”
“Branden then posted a meme of the Cookie Monster,” Rummerfield said. “Underneath it it said, ‘Nom, nom, nom, nom, nom.’ That is not a very professional thing to do when you’re trying to gain the trust of the community.”
Durst appears to have since deleted the Tweet.
Rummerfield and other parents said they’re more worried about Durst’s inexperience than his political views or social media decorum. Durst has helped write education legislation and has an education specialist degree in executive educational leadership from Boise State University, but hasn’t worked in public schools.
The West Bonner school board isn’t the first to choose someone without public school experience as its superintendent. For example, the Seattle public school system in the 1990s famously hired former U.S. Army Major Gen. John Stanford. Stanford, who had a 30-year military career, was widely praised for his accomplishments in the role.
Rutledge wrote 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 in an email. “We’re very fortunate that someone with his skillset and experience applied for this job.”
While Durst’s hiring isn’t unprecedented, it’s still unusual for a school district to appoint someone without a public education background. State Rep. Lance Clow, a Twin Falls Republican and former chair of the House education committee, questioned the school board’s decision.
“I was surprised that anyone would think he was qualified,” Clow said. “I would think that the West Bonner school district, or any school district for that matter, would be looking for somebody with more experience.”
In addition to raising concerns about his inexperience and views, Durst’s detractors have said his legal history worries them.
The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office last year charged his wife, Cheri Durst, with misdemeanor injury to a child. The charges stemmed from accusations made by Durst’s ex-wife, Jaime Charles, who accused Cheri Durst of beating her 14-year-old son, whose father is Branden Durst, with a wooden spoon as punishment for not doing the laundry. Charles said Branden Durst encouraged the punishment, which he denied.
Charles has also accused Durst of domestic violence and has previously received a temporary protection order against him.
Odd contracts and upcoming hurdles
Durst’s contract, which the board could finalize this week, has caused significant controversy.
The document includes a number of unusual provisions absent from the district’s previous superintendent contract.
In addition to a $105,000 annual salary, Durst asked for a $500 monthly housing stipend, a four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle for professional and personal use, the ability to eat free at school cafeterias, a life insurance policy with a payout equal to his salary, legal counsel for his wife and 20 vacation days.
On top of that, Durst wants his termination to require a supermajority vote of the school board.
If Durst and the school board agree on a contract, challenges lie ahead.
Durst doesn’t meet Idaho’s minimum requirements to serve as a 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.
- Receive an institutional recommendation.
In an Idaho Ed News story, Durst said he has all of the qualifications except four years of experience working in schools. Because he doesn’t meet the requirements, he’ll need a one-year provisional certificate from the state Board of Education to serve as superintendent.
As of Friday, Durst hadn’t applied for the certificate. Barring a special Board of Education meeting, he can’t get one in time for the start of the school year. Luckey also failed to meet the requirements but has a provisional certificate.
Even if the Board of Education grants Durst a certificate, he won’t be able to accrue four years of school experience anytime soon and the Board of Education rarely issues the one-year certificates multiple times.
Durst told Idaho Ed News he plans to work to reduce the state requirements, arguing that there is a shortage of superintendent candidates.
The school board could retain Durst as superintendent regardless of whether he’s certified, but the move would come with financial consequences. The state would stop funding the position. Besides cutting funding, the Department of Education has no ability to prevent school boards from retaining unqualified superintendents.
Assuming Durst becomes West Bonner’s superintendent, he’ll inherit a district facing a major budget shortfall due to the failed levy. The district will need to make major cuts. Extracurricular activities, such as sports and music classes, could be eliminated or significantly reduced.
Rummerfield said she expects some parents will consider taking their kids out of the West Bonner County School District.
Whitney Urmann, who recently resigned after working as a Priest Lake Elementary School teacher, said she expects the district’s staff retention problems to get worse.
Urmann said she left for multiple reasons. She said the levy failure meant she was likely to lose her job anyway and the school board’s curriculum decisions made it difficult for teachers to do their jobs.
Teaching English last year was especially difficult, she said.
“We were using a 12-year-old curriculum that is no longer in print,” Urmann said.
Urmann, Rummerfield and Scott-Yount said they believe the school board majority and Durst want to dismantle public schools.
“They’re not worried about what our children are facing in the years ahead, it’s all about, ‘We don’t want to pay extra taxes,’ ” Rummerfield said.
Rutledge accused Durst’s opponents of “fear-mongering” and wrote that he thinks Durst will bring much-needed change.
“Branden has the administrative skillset and experience needed to put the district on the right track toward improving outcomes, and he’s not afraid to take on the bloated educational establishment to get the job done,” Rutledge wrote.
Barton reiterated that she thinks Durst is the wrong choice for West Bonner schools.
“If you put someone in a position that is not experienced and is not qualified, you set them up for failure,” she said.
“You set the district up for failure.”