West Bonner superintendent controversy stokes broader question: who should lead Idaho school districts?

In Idaho, underqualified candidates rarely receive emergency provisional certificates to act as superintendents — and when they do, it’s usually because they’re longtime educators with decades of experience in schools. 

Branden Durst would like to see that change. 

Durst — formerly a Democratic lawmaker and Republican state superintendent candidate, and now an analyst for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hardline conservative organization — hopes to lead the West Bonner County School District. 

But there’s a hangup — he’s never worked in a K-12 school, and the position calls for four years of such experience. 

An administrator certificate with a superintendent endorsement requires the following:
Doctorate degree or comparable education: An education specialist or doctorate degree, or completion of a comparable post-master’s sixth-year program at an accredited college or university.
Four years spent working in a school: Four years of full-time certificated/licensed experience working with students while under contract in an accredited school setting.
Administrative internship: Completion of an administrative internship in a State Board-approved program for a superintendent endorsement, or one year of out-of-state experience as an assistant superintendent or superintendent.
Completion of a post-master’s, school superintendent program: Verification of completion of an approved program at an accredited college or university — including at least 30 semester credit hours of post-master’s degree graduate study for school superintendent preparation. A school administration program must include demonstration of proficiency in conducting instructional and pupil service staff evaluations, based on the statewide framework for evaluation, and demonstration of competencies in the Idaho standards for superintendents and the Idaho Standards for School Principals.
Recommendation: An institutional recommendation for a superintendent endorsement.

The lack of experience clouds Durst’s bid for the superintendency, and has sparked an imbroglio over who should lead West Bonner — an out-of-the-box and controversial politician like Durst, or an education insider with decades of K-12 experience like Interim Superintendent Susie Luckey?

That question has divided the Priest River community, and fueled two contentious meetings over Durst’s potential hire and his unusual contract requests. Meanwhile, it will be up to the State Board of Education to grant or deny an emergency certificate to work as a superintendent — and according to records, Durst has not yet applied.

Lawmakers and education leaders from around the state are paying attention, because what happens in Priest River could have implications for the rest of the state. 

If Durst’s hire became official, it would set a precedent, potentially opening up the hiring process in other districts.

Durst says that’s a good thing — and a much-needed change in an era of superintendent shortages.  

“ … More must be done to provide districts the flexibility they need to make the right hiring decision for them,” he wrote in a recent statement

West Bonner trustees could be poised to consider Durst’s contract and hire tonight. The agenda includes a closed executive session for discussion and “potential action” on personnel and litigation matters.  However, according to Idaho code, “no executive session may be held for the purpose of taking any final action or making any final decision.”

Tonight’s meeting will be the first chance patrons have had to speak publicly about Durst’s potential hire, although they have freely yelled and shared their questions, comments, and insults aloud at prior meetings. 

Statewide, all other superintendents are properly qualified and emergency certificates remain rare

All 110 traditional Idaho school districts (not counting elementary districts) have a superintendent with the proper endorsements (besides West Bonner). There are 2,960 licensed administrators in the state (although it’s not clear how many of those hold a superintendent endorsement or the other required qualifications). Comparatively, there are only two current superintendent openings statewide (not counting the one in West Bonner). 

But in places like rural Priest River, it can be difficult to find qualified candidates. The one qualified individual who sought the West Bonner position dropped out, according to Board Chair Keith Rutledge, leaving trustees with two candidates who were missing one or more job requirements. 

Emergency provisional certificates have long been an option in Idaho for candidates who fall short of the superintendent requirements — but candidates rarely apply for a certificate, and they’re rarely granted. 

At last week’s regular State Board meeting, Luckey became one of the few superintendents to seek and receive approval for an emergency certification. Luckey applied for the certificate after becoming interim superintendent in mid-March, when Superintendent Jackie Branum abruptly stepped down. However, the certification was only for the 2022-23 school year. 

So even if Luckey were named as the next superintendent (which appears unlikely, since trustees eschewed the opportunity to do so last week), she would have to seek an extension of the emergency provisional certificate. 

At the core of the West Bonner controversy are some pressing questions: how rigorous should superintendent qualifications be? And who do Idahoans see fit as education leaders?

Tonight’s meeting may bring the state closer to an answer. 

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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