This story about West Bonner was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter. Laura Pappano is the author of School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics and the Battle for Public Education, to be published by Beacon Press in January 2024.
PRIEST RIVER, Idaho —The moms seated at the conference table on Election Day were worried. They had good reason: Their poll watchers at voting sites — grange halls on dirt roads, community centers hardly larger than a bungalow— suggested things were not going their way.
There were no formal exit polls conducted in West Bonner County, where the school district covers 781 square miles over timbered hills and crystalline lakes in the north Idaho panhandle. But Dana Douglas, a fit and forceful blonde sipping on an Americano and a water bottle boosted with electrolytes (she was teaching spin at 6 p.m.) had been poll-watching at Edgemere Grange Hall, and she had her indicator for how voters were casting their ballots: “Anyone who said, ‘Hello, good morning’” was in their camp. “Anyone with a scowl” who would not look her in the eye was in the other.
“It’s going to be a battle,” she said at the table. Sitting beside her, Candy Turner, a retired elementary school teacher who had brought Ziploc bags of pear slices and dried cranberries for the hours ahead, agreed. “I think we are in trouble based on what I saw.”
After Election Day, headlines in key locales all around the country spoke of moms fighting extremists in local school board races and winning. But even as some celebrated “flipping” their school boards back, far-right groups like Moms for Liberty remain. As the organization declared in an email blast in which they claimed winning 50 new school board seats: “WE ARE JUST GETTING STARTED!”
Some people overlook school board skirmishes, seeing them as trivial. For Turner, Douglas, and many in the West Bonner County School District, they are anything but. It’s not about Democrats versus Republicans (Turner is a registered Democrat; Douglas is “a proud conservative Republican”). It’s about the viability of public education in their community.
This is not hyperbole. The national infection facing public schooling — the tug-of-war between education professionals and extremist culture warriors — has brought chaos and damage to West Bonner County. After this past school year ended, the superintendent acknowledged that 31 percent of teachers, counselors, and education leaders left the district, and scores of parents pulled their children, opting for homeschooling, online learning, or enrolling in another district. Buildings are infrequently cleaned; an elementary school principal reported at an October school board meeting that mice were running over children’s feet and hallways smelled of urine.
What has happened in West Bonner County offers a warning to public school supporters elsewhere. Douglas, Turner, and others are fighting to restore normalcy to an institution that should not be up for grabs — but is.
“We’ve been the canary in the coal mine,”Margaret Hall, the current school board chair who faced a far-right challenger, said on the eve of the November election. Hall, a soft-spoken but firm force, has served on the board for eight years, even through chemotherapy treatments for cancer. “What has to happen,” she said, “is people have to wake up and decide, ‘We don’t want someone to come in and tell us what we want. We want to decide ourselves.’”
Idaho is a conservative state and Bonner County is even more so, with registered Republicans outnumbering Democrats by almost seven to one (statewide it’s closer to five to one). Despite the nation’s bitter party politics, residents of this county have traditionally exercised a neighborly pragmatism in which the kids — or, as Douglas prefers, “our babies” — come first.
People filled in the gaps when it came to local needs, from sending groceries home with some children over weekends to teachers helping students brush their teeth or spending extra hours with struggling readers. But that spirit is now being tested by extremists who see a soft target in a stressed school district. Suddenly, the far-right’s anti-public-education catchphrases blared regularly on the national stage have become wedged into the local lexicon.
For example, “transgenderism” (described by one candidate as “boys in girls bathrooms, boys in girls sports, ‘gender-affirming care,’ and related absurdities”) became a top issue in this November’s school board race. One candidate for reelection, Troy Reinbold, a nonchalant figure who has attended meetings in cutoff shorts and exited mid-agenda without explanation, touted his work on “the strongest transgender policy in Idaho schools” and opposition to “social emotional learning,” which he called “a precursor to critical race theory.”
Hall, for her part, abstained in an August vote on a school district policy that would require teachers and staff to “refer to students by their biological sex” and students to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their genders assigned at birth, along with bar transgender girls from girls’ sports teams. She said it was confusing, poorly written, and not vetted by the board’s legal counsel (instead it was reviewed by the anti-LGBTQ Christian legal advocacy group, Alliance Defending Freedom). Hall’s campaign signs were later tagged with rainbow stickers. The policy ended up passing 4-0.
How a place that had long treated differences with a live-and-let-live ethos adopted the intolerant tone of national politics is anyone’s guess. Some blame an influx of newcomers. Bonner County, like the rest of Idaho, is growing, and over the past decade, the tally of registered voters has risen almost 50 percent to nearly 32,000.
But who they are and why some of them don’t support public education is a more complicated question. It’s possible that Idaho’s lax COVID-19 rules lured extremists, survivalists, and those lacking a communal impulse. There’s also a broader arc at play in a state economy that’s forced people to shift from work in local sawmills to commuter jobs that get them home later and leave them reliant on others to keep civic life running — a common pattern in 21st-century America. But Priest River, where the district is headquartered, is close-knit, populated by descendants of the six Naccarato brothers, who came from Italy to build the Great Northern Railroad in the late 1800s and stayed. That includes many mom organizers like Candy Naccarato Turner.
Priest River police chief Drew McLain dates the start of recent drama to the school board vote to rescind the English Language Arts curriculum from the well-established education publisher McGraw Hill. It had been swiftly and unanimously approved in June 2022 and was delivered to replace the curriculum that was out of print. But far-right activists objected, complaining that it included aspects of social emotional learning. Such instruction — on skills like “self-confidence, problem-solving, and pro-social behavior,” as McGraw Hill described the curriculum on its website — is a bugaboo for conservative ideologues. And on August 24 of last year, with one member missing, the board voted 3-1 to return the texts to the publisher.
The decision got the attention of moms like Douglas, Turner, and others. Whitney Hutchins, a new mother who graduated from West Bonner County schools in 2010 and whose family has operated a resort on Priest Lake for generations, started attending school board meetings. Ditto for Jessica Rogers, a mom of three daughters who had served on the curriculum committee and was upset by the reversal. Others, too, wondered what was happening.
After all, for years the meetings had been quiet affairs at the district’s storefront office on Main Street in a room with aged wood floors, folding chairs and tables, and a capacity of 34. By late 2022, such serenity was a thing of the past. People started lining up three to four hours in advance, which McLain said forced him to close Main Street for safety. Quickly, the gatherings got more and more unruly. First, McLain sent one officer, then several. At times, he called on the sheriff for backup.
Things escalated even further when Jackie Branum, who was hired as superintendent in the summer of 2022, proposed a supplemental levy, which sets a chosen amount as property tax to support local schools’ operating costs, and a four-day school week to address financial issues — then abruptly resigned. The board approved the shorter week, angering many parents. Then it appointed Susie Luckey, a popular elementary school principal, as interim superintendent until June. By May, the board had put a levy before voters that would provide roughly one-third of the district’s budget.
Supplemental levies in Idaho had long been used for capital projects and are now essential for operations. But residents suddenly sorted into “for” and “against” factions. Signs sprouted along rural roads; arguments raged on Facebook. The levy failed by 105 votes out of 3,295 cast. Parents expressed concern at a public meeting that the district would cut sports and extracurricular activities; some worried about teacher retention. Not to mention: The district still had no permanent superintendent.
In a swift but puzzling process, the school board eventually announced two finalists for superintendent. One was Luckey. The other was a far-right former elected politician who worked for the Idaho Freedom Foundation by the name of Branden Durst. Durst was an unusual choice given his lack of school experience and the IFF’s hostility to public education. (In 2019, the president of the IFF called public schools “the most virulent form of socialism (and indoctrination thereto) in America today,” adding, “I don’t think government should be in the education business.”)
Then again, it wasn’t Durst’s first go-around: In 2022, the Democrat turned Republican ran for state superintendent of public instruction. He lost the GOP primary but in Bonner County beat his two challengers with 60 percent of the vote. Among the donors to his campaign were IFF leaders and a local resident who had opposed the McGraw Hill curriculum.
It is unclear how Durst, an abrasive outsider from 420 miles south in Boise, was so quickly ushered into contention. Jim Jones, former Idaho attorney general and a former justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, points to the IFF. He said the organization aims to “discredit and dismantle” public schools throughout the state, “starting with West Bonner County School District.”
Jones also credits the IFF for helping extremists Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown get elected to the West Bonner County School Board in November 2021 in a low-turnout race. It was a pivotal election — but people didn’t realize it then. In hindsight, Douglas said residents “got lazy and complacent and we didn’t get to the polls and put people in the district that valued public education.”
By early 2023, Rutledge and Brown — along with Reinbold, who revealed himself as a fellow extremist — had become a majority voting bloc on the five-person school board. Hall, the school board chair who works on climate change mitigation and who readily references the Idaho education code, and Carlyn Barton, a mother and teacher who describes herself as a “common sense constitutional conservative,” were at odds with the other three.
Durst’s candidacy earlier this year turned up the heat on divisions both on the board and in the community. School board meetings were packed. Militia started showing up. And while the Second Amendment is cherished in Idaho, residents were alarmed to find men donned in khaki with walkie-talkies — and presumably guns — present for conversations on children’s education.
“The militia should not be at school board meetings,” argued McLain, the police chief who claimed that one grandfather “was so pissed at the militia” that he arrived drunk with a rifle. “It’s been frustrating,” he added. “If you told me I had the choice of a school board meeting or a bank robbery, I would be way less stressed going to the bank robbery.”
Following multiple contentious meetings with Hall and Barton, who pressed board members to reconsider Durst’s candidacy, in late June, he was selected by a 3-2 vote. After his hiring was finalized, Barton charged that “the direction of our board has turned into a fascist dictatorship with an agenda which is far from our conservative point of view.”
From the moment he slid into the superintendent’s maroon Naugahyde-upholstered chair in the West Bonner County School District office, Durst seemed to relish his position of power. There was serious work to do — like negotiating a teacher contract — but he appeared far more interested in burnishing his reputation, describing his takeover as “a pilot” that others could learn from.
This was a chance, he told me in multiple interviews, to use the district to test his “ideas that are frankly unorthodox in education,” including some rooted in his Christian values. He wanted intelligent design taught alongside evolution in biology classes. He was working to have a Christian university offer an Old Testament course to high school students at a Baptist church near their school. He hoped the district would adopt curricula developed by the Christian conservative college Hillsdale in Michigan.
Durst also cast himself as a model for how non-educators could take charge of a school district. He boasted that national far-right figures were in touch and encouraged him not to “screw this up.” As he put it, “I broke into the club. I got a superintendency without having to go through the traditional process of doing it.” Indeed, he had not been a school principal, administrator, or classroom teacher.
That lack of process was a major problem for the state Board of Education, which in August gave the district notice it was not in compliance with Idaho law, a determination that jeopardized tax dollars critical for funding the schools. A letter sent to Rutledge, the chair at the time, cited budget irregularities, missed school bus inspections, concerns about discipline rates of special education students, and the failure to file forms to access federal funds. But the main issue, the state’s board said, was the district’s “decision to employ a non-certified individual as superintendent.” Durst had sought emergency certification but was rebuffed by the state.
All of the uncertainty and division grew so dire that teachers found themselves struggling to carry on, leaving many no choice but to give notice. “It breaks my heart that I had to leave,” Steph Eldore, a fixture at Priest Lake Elementary School for 26 years, told me over tears in late August. With her daughter starting high school, Eldore and her husband, Ken, who had been director of facilities and capital improvements for 16 years, quit the district, finding jobs and enrolling their daughter elsewhere.
By the end of summer, 27 teachers had retired or resigned, along with 19 other staff members, including the director of special education, a school principal, and three counselors. Families followed. By fall, school district enrollment was down to 1,005 students, 100 less than projected. Even McLain, the police chief, had rented a place in Sandpoint, about half an hour from Priest River, and enrolled his two high school–aged children there. “We call ourselves the Priest River refugees,” he said. SergeantChris Davis, the district’s school resource officer, similarly said his daughter has opted to finish high school online. All in all, the Lake Pend Oreille School District in Sandpoint, whose permanent levy offers steady funding, reported 43 student transfers from West Bonner County School District.
Others, of course, remained. As the school year began, the West Bonner County School District 83 (“Strive for Greatness”) Facebook page was active with notices of cross-country races, soccer games, and picture day. But behind the sheen of normalcy were problems. A shortage of bus drivers led the district to cancel or combine routes. Many students’ commute times doubled, upsetting parents whose young children got home after dark, while other students had no bus transportation at all. There were also issues with school cleanliness. Kylie Hoepfer, a mom of a fourth grader, took on cleaning mouse turds on the bleachers at her daughter’s volleyball game. “I had heard about the mice problem but sweeping it all up was pretty gross,” she recalled.
The biggest hurt for families, however, was the loss of seasoned teachers. The district hired new ones, but a number of them soon quit. Trinity Duquette, a 1997 graduate of the high school, said her 8th-grade daughter “is on her third language arts teacher this year,” each with different styles and expectations. “They have been assigned essays and had a turnover in the midst of the assignment.”
For Paul and Jessica Turco, who built strong bonds with their son’s special education teachers who have since left the district, the loss “was like breaking up a family.” They said it was weeks into the school year before the new teachers read their son’s Individualized Education Program, the written plan outlining his learning needs. “It was like he was starting from the very beginning rather than a stepping stone from where he left off the prior year,” said Jessica. And it’s showing. “We have been dealing with constant outbursts,” she added, and “when he comes home from school, he doesn’t want to talk about his day.”
While watching the disruption, Hutchins, the new mom whose soft features belie a fierce frankness, made a decision: She and her husband were moving to Spokane, Washington. “I’m not going to raise my daughter here,” she said, curling into a leather chair at her family’s resort. Hutchins’s brother is gay. Watching his experience in school had been painful, and the hostility toward LGBTQ+ students seemed to be growing worse. “This is horrible to say,” Hutchins said after Durst’s hiring, “but the right-wing extremists, they are taking over our community.”
She wasn’t the only one thinking that — but not everyone was in a position to leave. Rogers, the mom of three who was on the curriculum committee, and her husband had recently built a home with sweeping views of Chase Lake. There was no moving away. So, she got involved at the school, first as a volunteer, then as a paraprofessional, and, more recently, teaching technology. Initially, she hadn’t wanted to get political, but soon, it no longer felt like a choice.
Back in late 2022, after the school board rescinded the McGraw Hill curriculum and voted for a four-day week, parents like Paul and Jessica Turco reached out to Turner, the retired elementary school teacher, who dialed up Douglas, the Election Day poll-watcher. “I called Dana and said, ‘The kids want some help,’” Turner recalled.
Although Douglas grew up over the state line in Newport, Washington, she married her high school sweetheart from Priest River and now bled Spartan orange. They had built a thriving family business, sent two children through the local schools, and had grandchildren enrolled. She understood that what she saw happening was at odds with what she stood for.
“I am a Republican. I am a Christian conservative,” said Douglas. “But I am 100 percent pro–public education, and I am pro–every child, and I will do anything for this community to embrace everyone and to love everyone.”
She, Turner, and others, including Hutchins, Rogers, and the Turcos, began meeting. How to take back the district? It started with the school board and, said Douglas, included a notion that should seem obvious: “getting people who value public education” to serve.
By the summer of 2023, they had collected signatures for a recall vote of Rutledge and Brown, the board’s chair and vice chair respectively. The group’s slogan—“Recall, Replace, Rebuild” — blossomed on signs in downtown storefronts, in yards, and banners posted in fields. The group collected endorsements, video testimonials, and built a website. By the time they were days out from the August 29 vote, their numbers had swelled. Over 125 people gathered in the wood-beamed great room at the Priest Lake Event Center for what was part rally, part check-in: Who could pick up “WBCSD Strong” T-shirts? Who would hold signs at key spots ahead of the vote?
Recalls usually fail. But in West Bonner County, the result was resounding. With a 60.9 percent turnout, Rutledge and Brown were recalled by a wide margin. But then, after the election but before votes were officially certified, Rutledge and Brown posted notice of a board meeting for Friday, September 1, at 5 p.m., just before Labor Day weekend. The top agenda items — “Dissolve Current Board of Trustees” and “Turn Meeting Over to the Superintendent”— raised alarms.
“I read the agenda and I was irate,” said Katie Elsaesser, a mom of two and a lawyer whose office is near the school district office. “I immediately started calling people.” She texted her husband that she would miss their son’s soccer game, then drafted a complaint, finishing at 2 a.m. In the morning, she drove to the district court in Sandpoint. One hour and fifteen minutes before the meeting was to take place, Elsaesser got a ruling to halt it. McLain delivered the news to the crowd in the high school cafeteria. “You would think I scored a touchdown,” he said.
In another strange twist after the recall, the board could not hold several meetings because Reinbold failed to show. Without a quorum, which required three present members, business halted. Finally, after a former school board chair alerted county officials, the sheriff agreed to investigate. Reinbold reappeared, and in mid-October, the board finally filled the vacant seats with two people who supported the recall.
With his options running thin, on September 25, 2023, Durst announced plans for “an amicable and fair exit.” For the fourth time in less than two years — since a longtime superintendent retired in June 2022 — the district was again seeking a new leader. Hall reached out to Joseph Kren, a former principal at the high school who had also served as superintendent in a nearby district. Kren was enjoying retirement—he got Hall’s call at 9:30 p.m. before he was to wake at 3:30 a.m. to go elk hunting. He would agree to a 90-day contract (the four-day week means it runs through March).
His appointment was greeted with relief. Kren, a serious-faced former wrestler, is religious but not ideological. On the sixth day of his new job, occupying the same spot Durst had just vacated, Kren showed me the silver-colored crucifix he had hung above his desk. Kren was clear that his faith “has guided [him]” but has “never gotten in the way.”
Growing up with a brother who was deaf, Kren said, has made him attuned to matters of inclusion and accommodation, which he called “a legal and moral responsibility.” His only agenda was to put things right. By Thanksgiving, he told me, the district had corrected state compliance issues, and he was working to add bus drivers. With so many turnovers, he acknowledged “disruptions can and do occur.” But his plan, he said, was steady: to “roll up [his] sleeves and work alongside” staff and to make “firm, consistent, morally sound decisions based in fact and the law.”
The November 2023 election would be pivotal. With the two school board replacements set — picked by the recall supporters who lived in the two school zones that had been represented by Rutledge and Brown — the other three zones’ seats were on the ballot. The pro-recall crowd wanted to boot Reinbold and reelect Hall and Barton. The election, in essence, would decide which side had a majority.
But each had challengers. Hall faced Alan Galloway, a sharp-jawed army veteran and cattle rancher who opposed “transgenderism,” efforts “to impose the outlawed teaching of CRT through SEL or any other ‘trojan horse’ scheme,” and a levy. He circulated a controversial letter with inflammatory claims, including that Hall had “failed our children by delaying action related to bullying, dress codes and Pornography within our schools.”
Barton faced Kathy Nash, who had pushed to rescind the curriculum, was treasurer of the Bonner County Republican Central Committee, and connected to far-right figures at the state level. Two of the far-right candidates shared a campaign treasurer and campaign finance reports show some of the same people donating to the three far-right candidates.
In other words, there were teams. Jim Kelly, Nash’s campaign manager, said Nash would bring scrutiny to school finances — and provide representation to those wounded by the recall. Kelly told me, “The big concern for Kathy, and for a lot of us, is that the school board is going to be 100 percent lopsided,” if the candidates he backed, whom many would consider far-right, were not elected. “People are objecting that there will not be a conservative voice.”
And yet, Nash’s opponent, Barton, was a conservative Christian. As was Reinbold’s challenger, Elizabeth Glazier, whose website described her as a “Proud Republican & Conservative Christian” who opposed the four-day week and the hiring of Durst. The race was not conservatives against liberals or Republicans against Democrats. It was, as locals told me, a referendum casting those who cared that students had books, buses, and teachers with a decent wage, against those who embraced extremist rhetoric.
At various polling places on Election Day, far-right campaign volunteers were overheard promising that Nash and Reinbold would keep boys out of girls’ bathrooms.
For parents who rely on the public schools, this kind of allegation was maddening. “It’s just paranoid bull honkey,” said Jacob Sateren, a father of eight (six in the schools). We met at a coffee shop across from the junior high on Election Day shortly after he had voted. Sateren, who’d turned a challenging childhood into a successful adulthood building pole barns, laughs when people call him “a woke liberal.” (His Facebook profile features an American flag emblazoned with the Second Amendment, he pointed out.)
He finds charges that schools are “indoctrinating” children absurd. “I haven’t had any of my kids come home and talk about any crazy weird stuff. And even if they did, if you are an involved parent, it doesn’t really matter. If teachers at the school are teaching my kids something I disagree with, it’s my job to be paying enough attention to catch it,” he said. “I don’t know why people get worked up. There is always going to be stuff you disagree with.”
On the day before the vote, under steady rainfall, Hutchins, Rogers, and another volunteer placed signs along Route 57 across from Priest Lake Elementary School, a polling station. Rogers’s youngest daughter skipped while twirling a child-sized umbrella. “A lot of people are very confident of Margy winning — we are not,” said Rogers, referring to Hall by her nickname.
There was good reason for concern. In the end, Hall did best Galloway by a 60-40 margin. But as Douglas and Turner had feared, Nash defeated Barton, and Reinbold won over Glazier. Retaking the district would not be quick or easy. Yet having a majority on the board offered relief. “We can rebuild,” said Douglas.
Hall, however, was concerned about the division that had eroded support for public education in the first place. The question on her mind was how to bring calm. On the eve of the election, she had made a soup with red lentils, ginger, and coconut milk, which she ladled into small ceramic bowls. As she sat at her dining table talking and eating, she rose periodically to let her dog, Cinco, outdoors, accompanying him with a flashlight. Because of a defect at birth, he now has only three legs; there were cougars and a pride of mountain lions in the dark woods.
Between trips, she shared her idea of creating random seating assignments at the round tables in the high school cafeteria where school board meetings were now held, a strategy for encouraging residents on each side to sit together and actually converse. “How tired are people of the fighting and name-calling and bashing?” There was much work to do — a new levy needed, a curriculum people agreed on, teacher contracts, luring families back — but she told me it started with “trying to work as a team, to balance perspectives.”
The day after the election, with the reality of the mixed board clear, Hall offered a sober assessment. “My work,” she said, “is definitely cut out for me.”