By Zach Hagadone
The sound and fury surrounding West Bonner School District’s selection of Branden Durst to serve as its latest superintendent will continue, after trustees opened and closed a special meeting June 14 with whiplash speed — first striking an agenda item that would have made way for considering whether to rescind Durst’s selection for the job, then tabling consideration and approval of his contract and addendum.
All told, the meeting lasted about eight minutes, punctuated throughout by cries of protest from the audience, whose members objected to the board’s turn away from reconsidering Durst’s hiring and the lack of debate surrounding the move.
“Look at this room in front of you,” shouted one unidentified meeting attendee, ostensibly referring to the auditorium packed with residents, as was another meeting June 12 that similarly did not result in approval of Durst’s contract.
“You work for us,” yelled another audience member, as trustees moved to adjourn amid an eruption of booing and angry statements from the crowd.
“These are our children,” one attendee called out right before the livestream on the WBSD Facebook page went dark.
Trustees Margaret Hall and Carlyn Barton both voted against amending the agenda to eliminate the item related to potentially rescinding the superintendent selection — and thereby potentially creating the opportunity for the board to re-vote on whether interim Superintendent Susie Luckey should get the position.
Chairman Keith Rutledge then 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.”
That investigation, according to Rutledge, required tabling the consideration and approval of Durst’s employment contract.
Hall called on the board to disclose who had the conversation or conversations regarding Durst’s contract and addendum. She then broadened her inquiry, saying 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.”
Rutledge said he had been in contact with legal counsel, and would share his written correspondence, per Hall’s request.
“The legal counsel was not shared with the board, therefore it cannot be considered, and this motion cannot be considered or this agenda item cannot be considered at this time,” he said, referring to Durst’s contract approval.
Emails to all five trustee members went unanswered by press time, though based on Rutledge’s comments at the meeting, it appears the investigation into improper conversations with legal counsel needs to come first.
Durst is a senior education policy analyst for 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.
The IFF has long been the fiercest opponent of public education in the state, with its executive director, Wayne Hoffman, going so far as to state in 2019 that, “I don’t think government should be in the education business. It is the most virulent form of socialism (and indoctrination thereto) in America today.”
In December 2022, Durst announced on his state superintendent campaign Facebook page that he “and others” were “in the process of putting together incorporation documents and an application to establish Idaho’s, and possibly the Nation’s, first ever Christian public charter school,” emphasizing, “a biblical worldview to train up the next generation in Truth.”
The Blaine Amendment to the Idaho Constitution expressly forbids channeling state monies toward religious educational institutions, though Idaho Republicans tried and failed to pass a work-around to that piece of law in the 2023 legislative session.
During his campaign for state superintendent, Durst underscored his support for “school choice,” and told the East Idaho News that in talking with parents around Idaho, “They want to stop the indoctrination that’s happening in their schools, they want to [be able] to make decisions for their kids.”
Durst’s controversial tenure in Idaho politics began in 2006, when the then-26-year-old was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives, in which he served as a Democrat until 2010. Durst then won election to the Senate in 2012, where he served until 2013 as the youngest member of the body.
He jumped to the Idaho Republican Party in 2016 and ran for state superintendent of public instruction in the 2022 GOP primary election, coming in second place to Debbie Critchfield.
Meanwhile, in February 2022, Idaho Reports detailed a protection order issued by a court in Washington state against Durst, stemming from a request from Durst’s former wife against him and his current wife, following a report of child abuse in Boise in December.
In March, the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office declined to charge Durst, but his wife did receive a ruling of misdemeanor injury to a child, after it was found that she struck a 14-year-old child with a wooden spoon. Durst was issued with a temporary restraining order by a judge in Thurston County, Wash., effective through March 16, because “he allegedly watched his wife strike the child … and encouraged it,” the Idaho Capital Sun reported. Durst has denied the accusation, though refused to comment to state media.
He did not respond to the Reader for two requests for comment on June 6 and June 14.
In April, the Idaho Capital Sun also reported that Durst had been found in contempt of court in Washington on four occasions for violating the terms of a parenting plan with his ex-wife.
He has also run afoul of legislative rules in the past, notably in a physical altercation with then-Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, in January 2022, during which he apparently approached Woodward in a committee room and threatened him with political retribution after the lawmaker voted with others not to print a bill presented by Durst related to giving parents the authority to access and review their children’s school documents, as well as enter school buildings and classrooms “without prior consent or notification.”
Durst was unhappy with Woodward’s vote, and followed him to his Capitol Building office in an exchange that included foul language and — according to Durst — aggression by Woodward when he poked his finger in Durst’s chest. Woodward denied that description of the interaction, claiming that Durst was the party responsible for escalating the situation. The Idaho Senate majority condemned Durst for his actions, writing that he “acted inappropriately.”
Durst’s selection as the next superintendent of the West Bonner School District has spurred loud opposition since the board voted 3-2 to offer him the job at its June 7 meeting, not least because he lacks critical qualifications — including “four years of full-time certified or licensed experience working with students while under contract in an accredited school setting,” which according to an October 2022 letter from the Boise State University Executive Educational Leadership program, meant that it could not offer him “an institutional recommendation” for his bid to become the state superintendent.
Luckey has served WBSD on an interim basis since March 2022, when the previous superintendent left for a similar job in Kamiah. She also does not possess a credential to work as superintendent, but as of the Idaho State Board of Education meeting in Pocatello on June 14, had been granted an emergency provisional certificate to hold the position. However, that certificate expires Aug. 31.
“The board typically only approves an emergency provisional for an individual once,” SBOE Communications Director Scott Graf told the Reader in an email. Since Luckey is already a certified administrator, she would be eligible for an alternative authorization.
“If granted, the validity period for the authorization would run Sept. 1, 2023-Aug. 31, 2024,” Graf wrote. “It can be renewed two times, allowing up to three years to complete the requirements for the new endorsement.”
Meanwhile, to his knowledge, Graf said, “we have not received an application for an emergency provisional for Mr. Durst.”
According to Idaho Statute, “Every person who is employed to serve in any elementary or secondary school in the capacity of teacher, supervisor, administrator, education specialist, school nurse or school librarian shall be required to have and to hold a certificate issued under authority of the state board of education, valid for the service being rendered.”
However, according to Graf, “the law does not expressly bar a district from hiring a candidate who, at the time of their hiring, isn’t certified.”
Durst holds a B.A. in political science and M.A. in public administration, “but no training or experience with an accredited school,” according to a June 13 report from KTVB.
Luckey has been an administrator in West Bonner County for almost two decades, serving as vice principal and principal at Priest Lake Elementary School — honored as Idaho’s National Distinguished Principal in Washington, D.C. in 2018 — and taught kindergarten at PLES beginning in 1984.
Based on the vote of the WBSD trustees June 14, Luckey will no longer be considered for the job, and it is unclear when Durst’s contract and its addendum might be taken up again by the board. The contract itself has raised eyebrows throughout the state for including a number of atypical stipulations that were cut from the document at the board’s June 12 meeting.
Among the contract line items deleted by trustees included housing and relocation allowances, the district furnishing Durst with a vehicle, allowing him to eat free lunches at district-wide schools and providing legal counsel for his wife. What’s more, Durst wanted the option to work remotely during non-instructional hours, the district to pay half of his monthly PERSI contribution, receive 20 vacation days and a supermajority required should the board determine that he be removed from the position.
According to the vote of the trustees June 14, the board will reconvene at the call of the chair to consider the amended contract. Meanwhile, “our community is pissed,” district resident Trinity Duquette told the Reader in an email following the meeting.
“We do not want Durst,” she wrote, adding later, “When the board canceled the meeting, our community was in an uproar.”
Editor’s note: This story has been amended to clarify that the Idaho Freedom Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization, while its political action wing, Idaho Freedom Action, is a 501(c)(4).
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