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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Restraining order cancels lame duck West Bonner school board meeting

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)

PRIEST RIVER, Idaho – A West Bonner school board meeting was canceled at the last minute Friday after a Bonner County judge granted a restraining order preventing the board from taking action until the results of a recall election that ousted two board members this week are certified.

At the top of the agenda were items to “dissolve” the board, turn the meeting over to the superintendent, then nominate and elect a new chairman. The language of the agenda alarmed the community as an apparent attempt by the ousted board members to maintain a grip on power.

Chair Keith Rutledge and Vice Chair Susan Brown were recalled by a more than 60% majority in a special election Tuesday. However, they remain in their positions until the results are certified Sept. 7.

Priest River Attorney Katherine Elsaesser was met with applause from parents when she delivered news of the restraining order at Priest River’s high school, shortly before the meeting was supposed to take place.

“It’s to focus on following the wishes of the voters,” Elsaesser said of the complaint she filed. “To try and contractually obligate the future board members is unconscionable. It’s basically ignoring the results of a valid election.”

Elsaesser filed on behalf of constituents Peggylee Smith and Dana Douglas, “the 1,386 voters who voted in favor of the recall” and the West Bonner School District.

The temporary restraining order, signed by Magistrate Judge Lori T. Meulenberg, prohibits any action at a board meeting that has a bearing on the structure of the board, or financially commits or contractually obligates the school district in any way.

The order said the meeting could have caused irreparable harm by dismantling the board, permitting open meeting violations and causing financial harm to the school district and its residents.

The order is effective for 14 days, and a hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12. Elsaesser said the order should no longer be necessary at that point, since the election results will be certified Sept. 7.

The complaint was filed first thing Friday morning, since the board’s meeting schedule was not noticed until the end of the day Thursday.

All five trustees and the superintendent were served by email, Elsaesser said.

Peggylee Smith, a former trustee who served 13 years on the school board and is a grandparent of students in the district, said the board majority makes decisions on its own without open discussion at meetings and without listening to the other board members and the community.

“Their hidden agenda was greater than what a public school district should tolerate,” Smith said.

Amee Berns, a parent of two children in the district, said it has been an emotional week.

“Here we have kiddos trying to go to school in a few days and I felt like we had board members literally trying to destroy our public school system,” Berns said. “So, it’s a huge relief and I hope we can rebuild.”

Together with Trustee Troy Reinbold, Rutledge and Brown maintain a majority that voted in June to hire Superintendent Branden Durst, who has been a divisive figure as the district faces a major budget shortfall.

Friday’s agenda included an updated addendum to Durst’s contract, which removed a section that would allow the board to fire him if he does not obtain a superintendent certification. Durst, a former Idaho Freedom Foundation staffer with no prior experience as an educator, applied for an emergency provisional certificate from the Idaho State Board of Education on Tuesday.

Other action items were to consider the superintendent’s right to legal counsel related to employment and certification, and possible legal action against the Idaho State Board of Education.

Trustee Margaret Hall said in an email she was seriously concerned the scheduled meeting was “a concerted effort to tie the hands of the next Board by the decisively recalled two Board members, Mr. Durst and others.”

“All public officials serve at the pleasure of the people,” Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane said in a statement early Friday afternoon, before the meeting was canceled. “I encourage everyone to respect the election process and the will of the people of West Bonner who voted on Tuesday.”

McGrane said his office worked closely with the Bonner County Clerk’s office to ensure an accurate and secure election. He said the 63% turnout was unprecedented for an August election.

Once the recall is certified, Rutledge and Brown will be removed, and the remaining board members will appoint their replacements.

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.