‘Egregious behavior’

W. Bonner school trustees blocked from holding ‘special meeting’ by restraining order; cancel another ahead of recall election certification

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

A season of high drama in the West Bonner County School District is moving into a new phase Thursday, Sept. 7, when the Bonner County Board of Canvassers will certify the results of the Aug. 29 special election that resulted in the recall of WBCSD Board of Trustees Chair Keith Rutledge and Vice-Chair Susan Brown.

Once the results of the election are certified, Rutledge and Brown will be officially removed from the board. After that time, the remaining members will have up to 90 days to appoint replacement trustees from the vacant zones or, if that isn’t possible, select new trustees from anywhere within the district. Should the board still fail to identify adequate replacements after 120 days, the board of Bonner County commissioners are empowered to make the appointments.

With voters turning out to recall Rutledge and Brown by margins exceeding 60%, the results appeared decisive and to end months of controversy surrounding the pair of trustees. However, that hasn’t proven to be so, with the board setting two meetings on Sept. 1 and Sept. 6, both of which were canceled after widespread concern that they represented last-ditch efforts by the recalled trustees to shore up the position of controversial Superintendent Branden Durst and set policies to which the new board would be beholden even after the election is canvassed.

Former WBCSD Chair Keith Rutledge. File photo.

District residents were particularly shocked Aug. 31 to see that a special meeting of the board had been called for Sept. 1 — the Friday before the three-day Labor Day weekend — and with an agenda that, among other actions, would have dissolved the current board, turned the meeting over to Durst, elected a new chair, affirmed previous board decisions, included an evaluation of Durst’s performance as superintendent, secured him legal counsel for employment and consideration of legal action against the Idaho State Board of Education.

That drama unfolded quickly, with observers describing the surprise board meeting as a “takeover” and attempted “coup” with the effect of sidestepping the recall. Leaders from the local to state level speaking to the Reader on and off the record all expressed alarm at the move and questioned its legality.

Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane weighed in with a statement Sept. 1, writing that his office had received “several inquiries” about the recall, and underscored that, “The 63% turnout for the West Bonner recall election earlier this week was unprecedented for an August election. The results were clear in the affirmative to recall two school board members. …

“All public officials serve at the pleasure of the people,” McGrane added. “I encourage everyone to respect the election process and the will of the people of West Bonner who voted on Tuesday.”

WBCSD Trustee Margaret Hall told the Reader in an email Aug. 31 wrote, “It is obvious that this is an extreme effort to tie the hands of the next board by the two board members who have been recalled decisively, before their terms ends.  

Former WBCSD Vice-Chair Susan Brown. File photo.

“My concern is that these two trustees, with assistance from Mr. Durst, are leaving a legacy of potentially a large financial burden by placing the district in a position where it is obligated to take on legal battles that it should not be in [in] the first place,” she wrote, later adding, “Individuals claim to be fiscally conservative and transparent. I do not see either, especially given again the last minute call for this meeting on a Friday of a three-day weekend. It’s inexcusable.”

Since late-June at least, many in the Priest River area have contended that Rutledge and Brown had been operating with disregard for the community’s wishes, violating open meeting laws and making decisions based on a “hidden agenda” — specifically when it came to voting 3-2 to select Durst as superintendent. 

That decision came earlier in the summer, despite the option of retaining then-interim Superintendent Susie Luckey, who is a 40-year WBCSD educator and administrator, and holds an emergency provisional certificate to serve in the job — something Durst has yet to acquire. 

Once a Democratic legislator in the Idaho House, Durst later switched to the Republican Party, under which banner he ran an unsuccessful campaign for state superintendent of public instruction in 2022. Durst has also worked as an education policy analyst for the ultra-conservative free market organization Idaho Freedom Foundation, which has stated on multiple occasions its desire to see public education eliminated in Idaho.

What’s more, Durst lacks a critical qualification to serve as a superintendent, having never worked the requisite number of years in a classroom, and has yet to receive the emergency provisional certification that would allow him to hold the job.

The Idaho State Board of Education sent a letter to the WBCSD in mid-August listing numerous areas in which the district was out of compliance with state requirements, including lack of a balanced budget, lack of clarity over whether the district’s buses had been inspected per the requirements, lack of federally required intervention services for students with disciplinary action, and failure to complete its Consolidated State Federal Grant Application and submit the document for State Board approval. 

What’s more, state education leaders told West Bonner that Idaho Code “strongly suggests your board’s decision to allow an uncertified individual to serve as superintendent violates Idaho law.”

A spokesperson told the Reader in an email Sept. 1 that the State Board had received Durst’s application for an emergency provisional certification by email, but had not yet seen a hard copy. 

Meanwhile, scores of district personnel have left the district either by choice or necessity since June, along with numerous students who have transferred to surrounding school districts — including the Lake Pend Oreille School District.

Concerns over what might have come out of the Sept. 1 meeting spread throughout that day, including enough worry over potential violence that Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler confirmed to the Reader in an email that he had received a request to assist the Priest River Police Department with additional security and would be sending deputies to provide support.

However, an effort to block the meeting had been underway since the late afternoon of Aug. 31, with attorney Katherine Elsaesser working through the night on behalf of plaintiffs Peggy Smith and Dana Douglas to draft and submit a complaint for open meeting violations and requesting an emergency temporary restraining order blocking the board from taking up its Sept. 1 agenda.

A judge granted the order shortly before the meeting was to start at 5 p.m., resulting in its last-minute cancellation.

“It was egregious behavior,” Elsaesser told the Reader in a phone interview Sept. 2. “They have called themselves conservatives but this was in no way conserving the Constitution. This is basically putting the district into a lot of expensive litigation at a time when our district doesn’t even have money for all of its needs.”

Elsaesser, who is an attorney with Elsaesser Anderson, Chtd. and also serves as the Priest River city attorney, said, “The blatant disrespect for the result of the recall was pretty obvious,” and, “It really was immediate and irreparable harm that was going to occur.”

“There was nothing on that agenda for the students or the district — it was exclusively for him,” she said, referring to Durst. “Everything on there … it was all benefiting him.”

In the complaint, plaintiffs argued that the Sept. 1 meeting agenda represented items “that are an attempt to subvert the lawful election results and virtually prevent the future board from doing their due diligence as trustees,” and listed 14 specific “concerning and unlawful actions,” including the lack of legal standing for dissolving the board or putting Durst in charge of the meeting, much less reinserting items into his contract that the board previously voted to remove. 

“Trustees Brown and Rutledge have continually and systematically ignored open meeting violations and quorum violations by attending with prepared motions and refusing the engagement in public discussion of their decisions, showing decisions are being made in advance of board meetings by the recalled trustees and Trustee [Troy] Reinbold,” the complaint also stated, concluding that, “There is no conceivable harm by the actions by restraining but a substantial and great harm possible if the defendants are not restrained.”

The court order is in effect for 14 days from its approval, with a sunset provision that coincides with the canvassing of the recall election results. A hearing on the order is set for Tuesday, Sept. 12.

“I’m committed because this is where I live, this is where my kids go to school,” Elsaesser said.

Yet, with the restraining order still in effect, WBCSD announced Sept. 5 that it would hold another special meeting on Sept. 6, this time limited to board findings regarding evaluations of Durst and Board Clerk Brandy Paradee — whom Durst hired earlier this summer — as well as reaffirming previous board actions from June and August.

Observers, including Elsaesser, argued that the Sept. 5 meeting represented a violation of the court order, which Durst in a social media post on Sept. 4 indicated was the intention.

“Unconstitutional court orders should be defied,” he wrote. “A tyrannical judicial branch must not be tolerated. A court that tells people of faith they can’t worship together is tyrannical. A court that tells another branch of government that it can’t act in accordance with its statutorily prescribed duties is tyrannical. A court that tells a family they must end the life of a loved one is tyrannical. A court that tells law abiding citizens that they can’t exercise their Second Amendment rights is tyrannical. Silence in the face of tyranny is acceptance of tyranny. I will have no part of it.”

Officials announced late Sept. 6 that the meeting would be canceled shortly before it was scheduled to begin. Administrators gave no reason for the cancellation.

Rutledge also apparently approved an addendum to Durst’s contract Sept. 5, which is posted under the human resources section of the WBCSD website, though it is unclear when that addendum went before the full board for approval in an open meeting or whether it, too, violates the court order prohibiting the board from entering into any contractual obligations until after the Sept. 7 canvass.

Neither the members of the WBCSD Board of Trustees nor Durst responded to a request for comment by press time.

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