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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Branden Durst, the embattled North Idaho superintendent, says he’ll step down

West Bonner County School District Superintendent Branden Durst answers questions from reporters Wednesday night at Priest River Lamanna High School.  (Colin Tiernan/The Spokesman-Review)

Branden Durst, the embattled superintendent of the West Bonner County School District, plans to step down.

In a statement shared Monday on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, Durst said he’s seeking “an amicable and fair exit” from his job.

“I am fully aware of the challenges and sentiments that have surrounded my brief tenure,” he wrote. “I faced a situation marked by its relentless obstacles thrown my way by those who wished to see me fail, including the Idaho State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

The West Bonner County School District’s board of trustees hired Durst in June, following a 3-2 vote. The decision sparked community backlash, primarily because Durst is a controversial politician who had never worked in K-12 education.

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.

After leaving the Legislature, Durst switched over to the Grand Old Party. 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.”

Superintendents are often apolitical figures, but Durst has taken strong stances on a wide range of issues.

For instance, he’s said he believes public schools should have to compete with private ones for state funding.

He’s also argued for publicly funded religious schools and said he doesn’t support the separation of church and state. He opposes the teaching of critical race theory – the idea that slavery, segregation and other racial injustices from the past continue to impact Black people today.

On X, where he’s posted more than 19,000 times, Durst has said transgender people are living in sin and Idaho should ban gay pride flags.

Bonner County is deeply conservative, and many school district parents share some of Durst’s political views. He won 60% of the Bonner County vote during his 2022 campaign for superintendent of public instruction, despite only winning 34% of the vote statewide.

But even parents who share some of Durst’s philosophies have said they don’t want a man who lacks public education experience to be in charge of their kids’ education.

West Bonner School District residents were so incensed by Durst’s appointment that they campaigned to recall Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown, the two school board members who led the charge to hire him. Voters in August overwhelmingly decided to remove Rutledge and Brown from office.

With Rutledge and Brown gone, it appeared Durst’s days as superintendent were numbered. Two of the three remaining school board members, Margaret Hall and Carlyn Barton, had opposed his hiring and argued he was profoundly unqualified.

Compounding Durst’s woes, the state Board of Education this month rejected his application for an emergency certification. Durst needed the certificate because he doesn’t meet Idaho’s qualifications to serve as a superintendent.

The Board of Education since 2015 has only given three emergency certificates to administrators. Following Durst’s application, the state Attorney General’s office on Aug. 14 said that, 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 Durst’s more than $100,000 salary. Plus, the board would likely be sued if it tried to retain an unqualified superintendent.

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. Therefore, the school board would be opening itself up to lawsuits if it held onto Durst.

Hall, one of the three remaining West Bonner school board members, declined to comment on Durst’s letter, but she said the board will address the situation during its Wednesday meeting.

While Durst has said he intends to leave, he may not do so quietly. He wrote that he wants an “amicable and fair exit,” but didn’t say he’s resigning. It’s not unheard of for superintendents to ask for substantial financial settlements when they step down.

Just last week, it looked like Durst would try to carry on as superintendent despite public opposition.

It was widely believed that Hall and Barton might fire him during the school board’s Thursday meeting. That meeting didn’t happen, however, because trustee Troy Reinbold didn’t show up, and the board lacked a quorum.

Reinbold didn’t provide a reason for his absence, but parents who attended the meeting speculated that he stayed away to block Hall and Barton from firing Durst.

Durst declined to comment Monday, but in his letter he touted his accomplishments as superintendent and criticized his detractors.

“Throughout my short tenure, I remained cognizant of the fact that not everyone in the community welcomed my hiring, 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,” he wrote.

“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 towards success.”