PRIEST RIVER — What did you do last summer? A group of mothers and grandmothers in tiny Priest River proudly responds, “We saved a school district.”
It was a relentless and months-long effort that included hundreds of home visits and thousands of phone calls.
But a core group of 10 — with a hundred more participating — led an implausible community campaign to recall two members of the West Bonner County School District’s board of trustees.
And they did so with resounding voter turnout and lopsided results.
“The group kept growing and became much more eclectic, because those of us who have grown up here are raised with a standard that when you shake a hand, it’s a legal binding document. You look people in the eye when you talk to them and you honor and respect each other,” said Priest River resident Dana Douglas.
The fallout from the election has left the board in turmoil with two openings, an absent trustee obstructing board business and a quasi-superintendent said he is resigning, though left the “amicable and fair exit” details up to the dysfunctional board.
Last week’s regular meeting was canceled for lack of quorum and this week’s special meeting is at risk because all three remaining trustees must show up.
But the community was heard at the ballot box and created a district shakeup that’s getting statewide attention.
How they got there
West Bonner was at the center of a months-long leadership struggle to control the school board’s direction. In December of last year, a recall group agreed that three trustees were making decisions not in the best interest of their community or students. They settled on recalling the board chair and vice chair.
The recall election fight was just “really ugly,” but successful, said one of the core organizers — Annie McMahon, Candace Turner, Dana Douglas, Marcie Rentfro, Meagan Mize, Kylie Hoepfer, Hailey Scott, Sandy Brower, Brooke Ramsey and Debra Buttrey.
A summer sacrificed
Dozens of volunteers walked countless miles knocking on doors while other mothers babysat newborns and small children. Some even went out late at night — they called it reconnaissance — to place signs so opponents wouldn’t have the chance to remove them before morning drivers headed out to work.
Not just parents, but the whole community participated, from the elderly to children holding up recall signs.
“Education became a villain and teachers were villainized,” Rentfro explained.
Because their small-town values were under attack, the group felt it was fighting for more than an election, they said. Retired teachers, business owners, kids and grandparents alike all pitched in to challenge what the group describes as a spreading “extremist” movement.
“It was an extremist point of view, organized for the destruction and not the betterment of the community. It was created around self-promotion. It was missing out on what it means to help and support your neighbor,” said Brower.
They saved a school district
But successfully using a recall election is “rare,” according to education leaders and election officials. They embraced the challenge anyway, giving up the summer nights to attend board meetings, staying in communication with one another and developing a tough skin.
“Donkey. Leftist. Woke. Liberals. Marxists. Communists. Mob leaders.” They endured plenty of insulting names, the group said.
In June, they responded in earnest. Recall banners were stretched across fences, supporters started wearing their “WBCSD Strong” t-shirts to school board meetings, and recall signs started popping up in yards and in windows.
Rentfro said they were so busy on the weekends and weekdays, “like ants working on an ant hill.” They knocked on over 300 doors; placed 500 yard signs; set up 20 sandwich board signs; mailed 3,600 flyers, posters and letters; placed 18 banners; and called about 2,000 voters.
“If you mess with our children, our claws come out,” someone in the group chimed in.
They community was inspired by the failure of a supplemental levy, an abrupt return to the language arts curriculum and the hire of Branden Durst as superintendent.
Not fully qualified to serve as superintendent, Durst was hired in June on a 3-2 vote, supported by Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown — the two recalled trustees — and Troy Reinbold.
Last week, Reinbold failed to show up for the board’s first meeting since Rutledge and Brown were officially removed. Without Reinbold, the board does not have a quorum and cannot legally meet. The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday for a special meeting.
“We’ve been dealing with these people for so long and how tremendously organized they are,” one of the recall volunteers said.
If Reinbold attends, the board has a full agenda planned. If he doesn’t show up, the board will not be able to address Durst’s plan to step down as superintendent or make any decisions for the district. There’s also an election in November, where all three trustees are up for re-election.