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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

West Bonner School Board accepts Branden Durst’s resignation, appoints 90-day interim superintendent

West Bonner County Superintendent Branden Durst, left, at a board meeting in the Priest River Lamanna High School cafeteria on July 26.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The West Bonner School Board accepted the resignation of controversial superintendent Branden Durst late Wednesday night, a month after he announced his willingness to step down.

Joseph Kren has been named temporary superintendent with a 90-day contract.

Kren retired in 2020 after working since 2016 as principal of Priest River Lamanna High School. Before that, he was superintendent of other North Idaho school districts in St. Maries and Potlatch. The Idaho Association of School Administrators named him superintendent of the year in 2016.

He still holds an Idaho superintendent endorsement valid through August 2026.

Durst, who was hired in June following a 3-2 vote, has been a divisive figure at the center of a school district in turmoil. Two of the trustees who voted to hire him – former chair and vice chair Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown – were decisively recalled in August.

On Sept. 25, Durst posted a statement on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that he would “seek an amicable and fair exit” from his position.

The board, however, could not immediately accept the resignation due to a series of canceled and truncated meetings, since all three remaining board members needed to attend to reach a quorum.

Durst attended Wednesday’s meeting virtually. His resignation is effective Thursday.

The board also appointed legal counsel to negotiate terms of the separation through the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program.

In a post on X following Wednesday’s meeting, Durst took credit for an anti-transgender policy the board approved in August, just before the recall.

“Probably the thing I’m the most proud of in the last four months is getting the most conservative, comprehensive and legally defensible gender bathroom and facilities policy in the state adopted. A policy that I personally wrote prior to starting as superintendent.”

The policy requires staff to refer to students by their biological sex rather than their chosen gender pronouns unless agreed to by both the district administration and the student’s parents. The policy also segregates bathrooms and sports participation according to biological sex.

Despite West Bonner being a conservative district, Durst inspired a backlash from parents who believed he was unqualified and had plans to gut public education. The rural district is facing a budget shortfall after a levy failed in May.

With Rutledge and Brown gone after the recall, it appeared Durst’s days as superintendent were numbered.

Durst served as a Democratic state representative and senator between 2006 and 2013. He resigned shortly after a KTVB reporter discovered that he’d been splitting his time between Boise and the greater Seattle area.

He ran for state superintendent of public instruction in 2022 as a Republican, failing to advance past the primary.

Before taking the West Bonner superintendent job, Durst worked as an education policy analyst for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, 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.”

Durst faced more trouble when the state Board of Education last month rejected his application for an emergency certification. He needed the certificate because he doesn’t meet Idaho’s qualifications to serve as a superintendent, including four years of full-time certified experience working with students at an accredited school.

The decision followed an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office that said upon further review, the Board of Education only has the legal authority to give emergency certificates to teachers.

While the West Bonner School Board could have kept Durst even without a certification, doing so would have come with significant financial and legal repercussions.

The state wasn’t going to pay for Durst’s $110,000 salary. Plus, the board would likely be sued if it tried to retain an unqualified superintendent.

Idaho Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman told the school board on Aug. 16 that employing uncertified teachers, supervisors and administrators is illegal under state law.

“Throughout my short tenure, I remained cognizant of the fact that not everyone in the community welcomed my hiring,” Durst said in his Sept. 25 resignation statement, “and there were those who hoped to see me fail and did everything in their power to try to make that so, even if it meant hurting the very students they claimed to support. I was undeterred by the naysayers and their negativity only strengthened my resolve to do what needed to be done to put this district on a path toward success.”

Durst further stated that he resigned “to promote healing and unity within the community,” and that he was committed to facilitating a smooth transition.

He continued to serve as superintendent for the next month.

Board business was delayed when Trustee Troy Reinbold failed to attend several meetings after the recall. With only three remaining on the five-member board, all three needed to attend in order to reach a quorum to hold a meeting.

Some in the community believed Reinbold, who had supported Durst, was intentionally stalling.

Last week, the board had to delay applicants interviews for the vacancies left by the recall, this time due to what Reinbold said was a family emergency.

The Bonner County Sheriff’s Office was investigating a criminal complaint that alleged Reinbold willfully failed to perform his duty as a public officer, which could be a misdemeanor under Idaho law.

Sandy Brower, a former school board member who made the complaint, said the timing of the family emergency was “a little too coincidental.”

When Rutledge was chair, Reinbold was able to attend special meetings several times a week, she said.

The accumulation of routine agenda items caused Wednesday’s meeting to run late into the evening before the board went into executive session to discuss Durst’s employment.

Reinbold attended and voted in unison with Hall and Barton on each agenda item, including to accept Durst’s resignation and to appoint Kren.

The eventual settlement terms for Durst’s separation are unclear.

Trustee Margaret Hall, who is interim chair, said it will be up to the attorneys to work out the details.

Complicating matters is uncertainty around which version of Durst’s contract is valid after multiple attempts were made to modify an addendum that could benefit him.

After the recall but before the results were certified, Rutledge attempted to call two separate board meetings with agenda items related to the contract. Those meetings were canceled after a judge approved a restraining order prohibiting the board from making binding decisions until the election was certified on Sept. 7.

Outside of those meetings, Rutledge signed a contract addendum that had been approved by the board on Aug. 22 before the recall, but contained additional changes that were not discussed.

Katherine Elsaesser, the attorney representing the constituents who filed the restraining order, told The Spokesman-Review at the time that it was inappropriate for Rutledge to sign the addendum, since the Aug. 22 action was not noticed on the agenda and a draft was not provided to the trustees.

The details of Kren’s contract will be decided at a special board meeting Monday. Hall said he hopes Kren will start working next week.

The 90-day period will give the school district time to seat the new board members before beginning a formal search process for a permanent superintendent.

“We felt (Kren) was a good match for right now,” Hall said. “People know him, he knows the community and we believed he wanted to do what’s best for the community. Thankfully, he was willing to step up.”

Monday will also be the rescheduled board applicant interviews. Five candidates have applied for the two empty seats.

The appointed board members cannot be seated until the next regular board meeting, which is scheduled for Nov. 15.

The three remaining trustees, Hall, Reinbold and Carlyn Barton, are all running for re-election against challengers Alan Galloway, Elizabeth Glazier and Kathy Nash. Winners of the Nov. 7 election are seated in January.

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.