By Zach Hagadone
Weeks of controversy have roiled the West Bonner County School District, as its trustees have hosted a number of charged public board meetings related to the hiring of Branden Durst as superintendent.
Trustees approved Durst’s contract on a 3-2 vote June 28, as well as declared a state of emergency, which was required for Durst to secure an emergency provisional certification from the Idaho State Board of Education to do his job.
Durst is a high-profile political figure in Boise, who once served as a Democratic legislator before switching to the Republican Party, under which he unsuccessfully ran for state superintendent. He has close ties with the ultra-conservative 501(c)(3) “think tank” Idaho Freedom Foundation, which has its own lobby arm — Idaho Freedom Action, a 501(c)(4) political action committee — and enjoys an outsized level of influence over Idaho lawmakers through its various media channels and “Freedom Index,” which ranks legislators based on how closely they hew to the organization’s free-market, libertarian ideology.
IFF has long opposed public education in Idaho, referring to it as “the most virulent form of socialism (and indoctrination thereto) in America today.”
Durst has served IFF as a senior analyst of education policy, and fronted a plan during his 2022 state superintendent campaign to “establish Idaho’s, and possibly the Nation’s, first ever Christian public charter school … [with] a biblical worldview to train up the next generation in Truth.”
The board’s acceptance of Durst as superintendent over Susie Luckey sparked outrage in the greater Priest River community. Luckey had served as interim superintendent since March 2022, following a near-40-year career in the district as an educator and later principal. She received an emergency provisional certification to work as a superintendent on June 14, the same day the board voted to no longer consider her for the top job in the district.
Durst holds a B.A. in political science and M.A. in public administration, as well as an education specialist degree in executive education leadership, “but no training or experience with an accredited school,” according to a June 13 report from Boise-based KTVB. His alma mater, Boise State University, declined to give him “an institutional recommendation” for his state superintendent run, citing his lack of “full-time certified or licensed experience working with students while under contract in an accredited school setting.”
According to Idaho Ed News, Durst’s approved contract — in addition to a salary of $110,000 running from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024 — includes 12 days of illness, injury or emergency leave; paid vacation totaling 20 days; mileage reimbursement; $2,000 for relocation to the district; he may “undertake consultative, speaking engagements, writing, lecturing or other professional duties and obligations that do not conflict with his duties as superintendent,” pending board approval; and (apparently) may be terminated if he fails to “obtain and maintain an Idaho Superintendent Certification, or a provisional certification.”
Trustee Carlyn Barton, who voted against the state of emergency, said at the June 29 meeting that her role on the board was to “continue to fight for our community as a whole for what is good and right against evil and hidden agendas that will further divide our community.”
Other details are unclear, as the board has not released the contract to the public and the only source for review has been a brief projection of its text at the June 28 trustee meeting that was captured in a photograph by an attendee and posted to Facebook.
Trustees facing recall effort, with election set for August
Meanwhile, WBCSD Chair Keith Rutledge and Vice Chair Susan Brown are subject to a recall effort.
Community members have been loud in advocating to turn Rutledge and Brown out of the board, calling for their ouster in numerous letters to the editor.
Bonner County Clerk Michael Rosedale told the Reader on July 5 that the recall effort has met its signature requirements. The petition needed 243 signatures to qualify Rutledge for a recall, and 180 signatures for Brown. According to Rosedale, petitioners gathered 337 valid signatures for Rutledge and 243 valid signatures for Brown.
Rosedale said certified letters went out to both trustees on June 30 informing them of the successful petitions, and Rutledge had already responded with his 200-word rebuttal to appear on the ballot. Brown had not replied as of July 5, though Rosedale noted that she had five days from receipt of the letter to contribute her own rebuttal, and the latest she would have received notice from the clerk would have been on the the date the Reader spoke with him.
The recall election will be scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 29.
In nearly identical language, the petitions for the recall of both Rutledge and Brown stated that they have “failed to uphold the oath” to, “in good faith, strive to improve public schools.”
For example, the petitions stated that both voted to rescind the purchase of a language arts curriculum two months after its approval, costing district funds to return the materials. Further, they do not “recognize that a majority vote makes the decisions and the outcome needs to be supported by all members.”
Petitioners stated that Rutledge and Brown should “be actively involved in policy changes as that is the board’s primary function and should be made after complete discussion at a publicly held board meeting.”
In the recall petition for Brown, the text stated that she must “stop whispering to other board member[s] during public meetings.”
The petitions concluded that the trustees need “to be open, fair and honest,” and alleged they have “a hidden agenda” while failing to “respect the rights of [their] constituents and the opinion and ideas of [their] fellow board members.” What’s more, both trustees have illustrated that they “[do] not have the first and greatest concerns for the educational welfare of West Bonner County School District students attending public schools.”
In his rebuttal, Rutledge wrote that, “Voting AGAINST my recall will keep a conservative majority on the school board that is working hard to improve the outcomes for our district’s children. Voting for my recall will hand control of our district back over to the very same people that are responsible for 60% reading competency rates and call that ‘a success.’”
He further alleged that organizers of the recall are intent on keeping constituents “and the whole state from seeing the results of our forensic audit,” and furthermore “want to keep you and the whole country from seeing how a conservative-led school district can improve poor educational outcomes and give our children a better chance at actual success. They want to continue with failed tax-and-spend policies.”
Rutledge concluded that voting against his recall would support the forensic audit ahead of another levy — voters rejected a two-year, $4.7 million per year replacement funding measure by only 105 votes in the May election — and would retain “a superintendent that demands better than 60% competency ratings for our students.”
Finally, he wrote in a plea for “responsible administration of our district,” “Your NO vote rejects Critical Theory curriculums in our classrooms,” and “enable this board to keep building better outcomes for our district’s children, their families and all the residents who support it.”
It is unclear what Rutledge intended to mean by his reference to “Critical Theory curriculums.”
However, Rutledge in an undated candidate questionnaire posted on the IFF website (idahofreedom.org), wrote that he defined “Critical Race Theory” as “an academic discipline built on the intellectual framework of identity-based Marxism. At its core it teaches racism because the founding father [sic] were white and some of them slave owners therefore racist.”
He also referred to Social Emotional Learning as “just the latest fad and is being interwoven into Common Core. I would not support any form of SEL.”
When asked, “What do you believe is the fundamental role of education,” Rutledge told IFF, “The fundamental role of education is to teach kids how to be life long learners and not indoctrinate them with leftist ideas [sic].”
Hall replied to an email sent to all five trustees July 5 requesting comment on Durst’s contract, the recall effort, “state of emergency” and nearly month-long delay of release of requested public records to the Sandpoint Reader. Rutledge also responded to the email, but was unable to provide comment by press time.
Hall stated that she intends to “review the signed contract to make sure that the changes discussed and approved were included in the final document,” but would not comment on the recall effort. “My focus is to do the best job I can as trustee for the district,” she wrote.
On the state of emergency, Hall wrote that such a measure would have been approved for either Durst or Luckey, who both required an emergency provisional certification.
Regarding the long-delayed public records request submitted to the district by the Reader, Hall had no comment.
A ‘hidden agenda’ and improper handling of public records
Regarding the alleged “hidden agenda” being pursued by Rutledge and Brown, many West Bonner County School District residents have described in Facebook posts, public testimony and letters to the editor that the pair is bent on installing Durst as superintendent despite his lack of qualifications and associations with anti-public education sentiments expressed both during his state superintendent campaign and by association with IFF.
Accusations that Rutledge has been receiving coaching from outside influences during public meetings have circulated throughout various information channels in the community, citing numerous instances when the board chair has called multiple recesses during hotly contested meetings to leave the room, with both anecdotal and media reports noting that he is frequently seen texting as he exits from public view.
Jim Jones, a former Idaho Supreme Court justice and attorney general, wrote in an opinion piece circulated to statewide media that, “IFF helped to get far-right candidates Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown elected to the school board in November of 2021, making a three-trustee majority that has been creating havoc ever since.”
By “three-trustee majority,” Jones referred to Trustee Troy Reinbold, who has reliably voted in a bloc with Rutledge and Brown on matters related to Durst’s hiring.
“Now, the board majority has voted to install an unqualified IFF employee as superintendent of WBCSD,” he wrote. “… IFF is trying to commandeer other rural school district boards across the state. The WBCSD experience shows that IFF can fail, but it depends upon concerned citizens rising up to protect their schools.”
Rutledge adjourned a rancorous meeting of the trustees June 14 about about eight minutes after it gaveled into session, tabling consideration of rescinding Durst’s contract and addendum. In that meeting, he referred to “evidence which [had] recently come to light” of “improper and unprofessional discussions [that] may have occurred between district employees and legal counsel with regard to this subject; that such discussion may have violated proper procedures following the executive session of June 7, and which requires further investigation.”
Hall, who along with Trustee Carlyn Barton has consistently voted against Rutledge, Brown and Reinbold, called on the board to disclose who had the conversation or conversations regarding Durst’s contract and addendum. She further stated that she wanted to know the names of, “the attorney, the legal firm, and Mr. Durst’s attorney [and] legal firm and the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s legal attorney and firm to make sure … we limit our liability as a board, individually and as a group.”
According to previous reporting, Rutledge said he contacted legal counsel, and would share his written correspondence, per Hall’s request.
The Reader requested records June 9 pertaining to “all written correspondence, electronic or other, from April 1, 2023 to June 9, 2023 between Branden Durst and/or Wayne Hoffman and @sd83.org email addresses and/or the WBSD office at 134 Main St., Priest River, ID, 83856. The same for correspondence containing the @IdahoFreedom.org and/or @durstforidaho.com email addresses.”
As well, the Reader requested correspondence between the school district and District 1 Republican Sen. Scott Herndon, who also serves as chair of the Bonner County Republican Central Committee and has been an open supporter of Durst, along with keywords including “BCRCC,” “Bonner County Republican Central Committee” and/or “central committee” within the same timeframe.
WBCSD Board Clerk Steffie Pavey confirmed receipt of those records on June 9, and informed the Reader that they would be addressed with 10-day extensions, as allowed for in Idaho Code.
In an email received at 8:08 p.m. on June 23, Pavey told the Reader that the record request would take 1.6 hours to complete and would cost $312.
The Reader challenged that fee in an email on June 26, citing Idaho Code sections pertaining to public records.
According to statute, “Except for fees that are authorized or prescribed under other provisions of Idaho law, no fee shall be charged for the first two (2) hours of labor in responding to a request for public records, or for copying the first one hundred (100) pages of paper records that are requested.”
Other portions of Code state that public agencies cannot charge fees if the materials being requested are “likely to contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of the operations or activities of the government.”
In repeated phone calls, Pavey has told the Reader that public records in the West Bonner County School District must first be reviewed by legal counsel, which she said is a policy that has been instituted by the board of trustees. As entitled by Idaho Code, the Reader requested an itemization of the expenses associated with the records request, to which Pavey provided a document indicating an hourly attorney fee of $195 and underscoring the “actual time spent responding to request” as 1.6 hours.
The Reader contacted the Idaho Press Club, which is a membership organization of news media throughout the state, to review the responses from the school district and advise. IPC President Melissa Davlin submitted a letter June 28 to WBCSD reiterating the sections of Idaho Code 74-102 that pertain to waiving fees for records requests that require fewer than two hours of labor, and highlighted the 2019 court case Idaho Press Club v. Ada County, in which the organization successfully sued to obtain records that the county had inappropriately delayed delivering.
The ruling, Davlin noted, affirmed that, “The right of the public to know, in depth, how its public servants handle the public’s business is embodied in the Idaho Public Records Act. It gives the public broad access to the public records at every level, in every form — from state, to county, to city, to every type of commission and board. Public records are presumed to be open at all reasonable times for inspection by the public.”
In a phone call June 29, Pavey informed the Reader that the fee would be waived and the records request processed, pending legal counsel. She could not provide the Reader with a timeframe by which those records would be released, and did not respond to a follow up email June 29 seeking to confirm the substance of the conversation, including the fee waiver, timeline for records delivery and the name of the district’s legal counsel.
On July 5, Reader Publisher Ben Olson called the WBCSD to inform officials there that if the records were not delivered by Friday, July 7, the Reader would pursue other means to secure them, whether in the form of a complaint or legal action.
Olson asked to speak with the district legal counsel and Durst on the morning of July 5, but was told neither were available.
The paper also informed members of the board of the situation, with Hall responding that she had no comment, but went on to note that Pavey has received a number of records requests, “which have greatly increased over the last year from multiple parties,” and had been until June 30 the acting clerk of the board of trustees, entailing “a workload that has grown exponentially over the last year, and — most critical — she is the WBCSD business manager — now working with the board and superintendent to develop the 2023-2024 budget that has significant challenges needing to be addressed.”
The Reader isn’t the only news organization in Idaho that has been unreasonably impeded from examining public records from the district.
Jones wrote in his op-ed, “School district patrons are concerned about the appearance of backroom dealing by the board majority in arriving at the hiring decision. The Idaho Education News has highlighted what appear to be violations of Idaho’s Open Meeting Law by the IFF-supported board, as well as the board’s refusal to respond to public record requests.”
In a post on idahoednews.org, Managing Editor and CEO Jennifer Swindell wrote June 28 that, “Some of our public records requests are being ignored or postponed — illegally.”
She went on to cite Idaho law that requires a request to be granted or denied within three working days and delivered “no later than ten (10) working days.”
“The public records we ask for don’t belong to a university, school district, board of trustees or an individual — they belong to the public,” Swindell wrote.
As with the Reader, Idaho Ed News requested to examine emails, including those sent between trustees and Durst. In an email July 5, Swindell told the Reader that Idaho Ed News had still not received its asked-for materials.
Correction: In addition to B.A. and M.A. degrees, Branden Durst also holds an education specialist degree in executive education leadership. This article has been updated to include that additional credential.
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