By Zach Hagadone
Voters in the West Bonner County School District made headlines around the state Aug. 29, turning out in large numbers to successfully recall two trustee members.
The results of the special election, which will remain unofficial until canvassed on Thursday, Sept. 7, showed 65.9% voted in favor of recalling WBCSD Vice-Chair Susan Brown and 62.6% voted to recall Chair Keith Rutledge — what Bonner County Clerk Michael Rosedale called “decisive” margins.
According to state law, a successful recall requires that more voters cast ballots in favor of the measure than elected the given official in the first place, and that the “yes” votes then outnumber the “no” votes by a simple majority.
Residents in Zone 2 elected Brown with 176 votes, and Zone 4 residents cast 244 ballots for Rutledge for their seats in the last election, with terms ending in January 2026. Petitioners this summer gathered 337 valid signatures to put Rutledge on the recall ballot, and 243 valid signatures to put Brown on the ballot.
On Aug. 29, 624 voters agreed that Brown should be recalled, and 762 voted to recall Rutledge. Total turnout came to 2,166 voters, and reached no lower than 53% in any of the six precincts.
Only voters in Zones 2 and 4 were eligible to vote.
“That’s totally a presidential election,” Rosedale told the Reader, referring to the level of participation at the polls.
According to a statement provided Aug. 30 to the Reader from Dana Douglas and Candy Turner, who started the WBCSD “Recall, Replace, Rebuild” effort, “We are grateful and thankful for the voter turnout. We are also grateful and thankful that the community saw through the misinformation that has been blanketed through the community. …
“We know that our battles are not over, but we are staying here and working hard to get our district back on track. Our community came together when we weren’t being heard,” they added. “The two board members had their own agenda and chose not to work with the other board members or listen to the community for the good of the district.”
According to statute, the WBCSD board has 90 days from the date of the canvass to appoint replacements from the zones that are now vacant or, failing that, make appointments from anywhere in the district. If they can’t resolve that after 120 days, the board of Bonner County commissioners may make the appointments.
Trustees appointed to the vacant seats would serve out the remaining terms, in this case until January 2026. The seats currently held by Trustees Margaret Hall, Carlyn Barton and Troy Reinbold will all be on the ballot in the November general election.
Barton, who represents Zone 5, told the Reader in an email that, following the recall, “we need to unify by focusing on the health of our district.”
“We have come a long way but we still have a lot of growth that needs to be done to rebuild our culture,” she wrote, later adding, “We need to continue to work on change within the district and I will focus on following my heart, which reflects orange and black. We are PR Strong!”
Of the members of the board of trustees, only Barton responded to a request for comment by press time.
Reasons for the recall
The high turnout Aug. 29 reflects the vigorous community debate and organizing in the district since mid-summer, with the recall effort spurred by opposition to the board’s appointment on a 3-2 margin of Branden Durst as superintendent, with Barton and Hall dissenting.
As has been previously reported, Durst lacks a critical certification required to serve in the position. The Idaho State Board of Education informed WBCSD in a recent letter that the “codes strongly suggest your board’s decision to allow an uncertified individual to serve as superintendent violates Idaho law.”
Durst has been directed by the board to apply for an emergency provisional certificate “no later than Aug. 31.”
Others opposed to Durst’s hiring have highlighted his work as an education policy analyst for the ultra-conservative free market organization Idaho Freedom Foundation, which has for years been among the staunchest antagonists toward public education in the state.
Still others in support of the recall have pointed to wide ranging turnover among district personnel since Durst came to the district office in July, as well as a number of administrative issues including funding for extracurricular activities and areas where the district is out of compliance regarding school finance, transportation, special education and federal programs.
When asked for a statement on the unofficial results of the Aug. 29 election, Durst responded, “No comment.”
In their submitted ballot language, recall supporters accused Rutledge and Brown of pursuing “a hidden agenda,” while failing to respect constituents’ rights and “the opinion and ideas” of their fellow trustees.
Other arguments in favor of the recall cited the votes made by Rutledge and Brown to rescind the purchase of a language arts curriculum, costing the district money; the trustees’ alleged failure to “recognize that a majority vote makes the decisions and the outcome needs to be supported by all members”; and called on both to be “open, fair and honest.”
According to the pro-recall ballot language, Rutledge and Brown have “shown that [they] do not have the first and greatest concerns for the educational welfare of West Bonner County School District students attending public schools.”
For their part, the rebuttal statements framed the recall as an attempt to break up the “conservative majority” on the board, as Rutledge put it, and open a “backdoor through Idaho law to promote CRT [so-called Critical Race Theory] and LGBTQ+/- agendas,” in Brown’s words.
What comes next for WBCSD
Passions on both sides ran high surrounding the recall, with signs, banners and booths readily apparent throughout the West Bonner area, which includes Priest River. Rosedale said the Elections Office received “a couple” of communications on Election Day related to alleged inappropriate signage and electioneering activities, “but they were minor or there was a lawful reason for it.”
In one instance, some banners failed to include a printed disclosure of who paid for them or name the treasurer, but that was remedied with the addition of some stickers. Others reported receiving pushback at the polls for wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “WBCSD Strong,” but Rosedale also characterized that as “a relatively minor thing.”
“The bigger thing was that we had East and West Priest River [precincts] vote at the Priest River Events Center. The owner there said, ‘I just don’t want any signs on my property,” Rosedale said.
He told the Reader that the Edgemere Grange also barred any election-related materials from its property while polling took place.
Election law stipulates that campaign materials of any type cannot be located closer than 100 feet from a polling place.
“Some people weren’t happy about that, but the owner had every legal right to do that,” Rosedale said.
The successful recall in West Bonner is a historical outlier. According to records compiled by ballotpedia.org, there were recall efforts in the county in 2013 and 2015 — the first in the Lake Pend Oreille School District and the second in the West Bonner County School District, both directed at overturning trustee seats.
Neither effort made it to the ballot, the former due to a paperwork filing error and the latter because supporters did not acquire enough signatures.
A third attempted recall not listed by ballotpedia.org took place in 2019, when petitioners tried and failed to unseat two members of the Bayview Water and Sewer District board.
With the recall now in the past, Barton said her short-term goals are to fill the vacancies left by Rutledge and Brown, as well as continue with Phase 1 of the district’s audit. In addition, Barton said she will work to “rectify WBCSD operational deficiencies and comply with [the] Idaho State Board of Education,” as well as solidify teacher negotiations, get an ELA curriculum adopted for the 2024-’25 school year and “support our community by listening to their concerns, advocate for our students and finally support our staff.”
Meanwhile, recall supporters look at the results of the Aug. 29 election as an accomplishment, writing:
“[W]e are a group of individuals from all ends of the political spectrum that have come together in pursuit of a common goal. We came together to support our kids and fight off these extremists. Never underestimate us! We are PR! We are Spartans!”
For more information about elections, and to view the results of the Aug. 29 special election, visit bonnercountyid.gov/departments/elections.
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