West Bonner board chair fires back during town hall meeting

PRIEST RIVER — As he fights to remain a school trustee, West Bonner board chairman Keith Rutledge reiterated his support of new superintendent Branden Durst, and pointed to current problems he’s trying to correct with student performance and school culture.

“I want a safe learning environment,” Rutledge said during a town hall meeting last Saturday.

About Durst, he added, “I am beyond blown away at the skill that guy has.”

The recent hiring of Durst was the catalyst for a recall election that will take place on Aug. 29 against Rutledge and vice chair Susan Brown. Rutledge spoke for 20 minutes at Trinity Baptist Church. The event was taped by North Idaho Exposed and posted on Twitter over the weekend.

“We weren’t elected for a popularity contest, we’re elected to fix things,” Rutledge told the audience. “And sometimes it’s hard. But it’s got to be done.”

Here’s more of what Rutledge said during Saturday’s event:

The social emotional learning curriculum

When West Bonner got rid of the social emotional learning curriculum, “what a lot of people don’t know is that we wanted to replace that with a curriculum that was good and sound and solid,” Rutledge said.

That curriculum comes from Hillsdale College, with a focus on a classical education model.

“We’re the first public school in the United States to get Hillsdale. There’s a lot of charter schools, but we’re the first public school,” Rutledge said.

According to the Hillsdale website, there are two schools in Idaho affiliated with the Hillsdale K-12 curriculum: Treasure Valley Classical Academy and Kootenai Classical Academy.

A spokesperson for Hillsdale confirmed Monday that “West Bonner County School District was granted a license to use Hillsdale’s K-12 curriculum in October of 2022. Hillsdale’s K-12 office hasn’t had further correspondence with the district since last fall, and it is our understanding that the district leadership has changed since that time.”

Serving the school community

Rutledge told the story of why he chose to serve on the board and how he pulled out a victory by just a few votes.

“This is all a faith walk,” Rutledge said.

“I didn’t know anybody in the school district. My kids never went to the schools. I work in Sandpoint. I didn’t know anybody in the district — I knew nobody.”

Yet “we won by seven votes — that’s God,” he said.

The former superintendent

Last June, Rutledge and the board participated in the hiring of former superintendent Jacquelin Branum, who had a shared vision, wanted academic excellence, wanted to change the culture and wanted fiscal responsibility, Rutledge said

“Unfortunately, she lasted eight months before the culture swallowed her.”

The negative school culture

“For those of you who got to go to high school graduation, I got booed,” Rutledge said. 

“The keynote speech was specifically about the board and the students — about 40% of them — wouldn’t shake my hand and half of those handed me notes. That’s the culture. We had a high performing student commit suicide this year. That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s just about culture.”

Low academic performance

Rutledge discussed a Priest River Lamanna High School academic report based on data from the State Board of Education. He held up the report but did not provide copies; however, he encouraged people to contact him and read it.

“This is a damning report about our school system,” he said. “You want to know about our performance?”

  • English language arts ranks last in the state. 
  • Math scores rank last in the state.
  • Staff engagement and satisfaction is near the bottom.
  • Student engagement is near the bottom. 
  • Priest River children don’t think very highly of their schools. 
  • Parental satisfaction is near the bottom.

“You know your schools and districts are failing your children. The question is what are you going to do about it? Are you going to demand more of the same failure? Where are you going to insist upon changes and improvements?” Rutledge asked the audience.

The hiring of Branden Durst

Rutledge addressed false information about superintendent Durst — specifically, that because he doesn’t have four years of teaching, he can’t be a superintendent. 

“You’re hiring a CEO. You’re hiring someone to run a district that knows finance, knows how to build a team, who knows how to make things happen. That’s what the superintendent supports, not filling a class,” Rutledge said. 

“He has more skills than Susan Luckey ever had,” he added.

  • He has advanced degrees.
  • He knows finance. 
  • He knows how to navigate state government.
  • He knows how to affect change. 
  • He knows what he’s doing.

“What they’ve done is tried to destroy that man. They’ve tried to destroy me and they’ve tried to destroy Susan,” he said.

Negotiations with the teachers’ union

The district is currently negotiating with teachers and creating a proposed budget. To save the extracurricular and co-curricular programs, rather than giving 10% raises to teachers, the district could opt for 3-4%, which would leave money in the budget for student programs, Rutledge said.

That could be done if teachers receive about a 4% raise, “which I think they don’t even deserve that,” he said.

“When we got down to the hard numbers, our teachers union demanded 17%. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I guarantee it’s not going to be 17% — nowhere close to that,” he said.

At the conclusion of his presentation, Rutledge received a standing ovation.

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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