UPDATED: West Bonner trustees give chair authority to hire lawyer, finalize Durst’s draft contract

West Bonner trustees discuss school district business. All photos courtesy of Max Oswald of the Bonner County Daily Bee.

Updated: June 27 at 2:26 p.m. with a statement from the ISBA clarifying that the organization did not advise the board to hire outside counsel or give the chair sole authority to do so. 

PRIEST RIVER — A three-trustee bloc voted to give West Bonner Board Chair Keith Rutledge authority to hire a lawyer and determine the final draft of superintendent candidate Branden Durst’s contract — over the objections of Trustees Margaret Hall and Carlyn Barton — at a special meeting Monday night.  

Rutledge also gave a deadline for Durst’s draft contract to be completed: 9 a.m. on June 27. 

The board plans to vote on the contract at a special meeting Wednesday. 

The 3-2 decisions underscored the growing contention between the trustees who voted to hire Durst — formerly a Democratic lawmaker and Republican state superintendent candidate, and now an analyst for the Idaho Freedom Foundation — and those who did not (Hall and Barton). 

Board chair Keith Rutledge called four five-minute recesses, during which he went to a back room.

During the 45-minute meeting, Rutledge called four five-minute recesses, during which he went to a back room. 

The first time, Barton followed, apparently to discuss Rutledge’s request for sole authority to determine Durst’s draft contract if an agreement were not reached by Tuesday morning in a subcommittee consisting of himself and Barton.  

Rutledge described the request as “housekeeping” and “procedural.”

“I don’t find it housekeeping, I find it disheartening,” Barton said. 

She, Durst, and Rutledge had worked together on Durst’s draft contract and reached an agreement, so she felt the request signaled that Rutledge would be changing the contract without her consent. 

Hall also expressed reservations: “It isn’t needed and it should be, in good faith, finalized between the two of you.”

Ultimately, the motion passed, with Rutledge, Vice Chair Susan Brown, and Trustee Troy Reinbold voting in favor. 

The board then discussed a motion to give Rutledge authority to hire an attorney for “general purposes,” and to pay no more than $5,000 for the initial retainer. 

Last week, Rutledge had advocated for hiring the attorney to help with Durst’s contract and to conduct a forensic audit. 

During Monday’s discussion about hiring a lawyer, Rutledge called for a recess three times — all after being challenged or questioned — and went to a back room. 

After Rutledge’s third recess, Barton asked him to disclose who he’d been on the phone communicating with. 

West Bonner trustee Margaret Hall

Rutledge said nobody, and was met with an uproar from attendees. 

At that point, he called a fourth recess and retreated to the back room again. 

Barton had called for the board to open up for bidding the attorney position. The board did vote on an amendment to do that, but it failed with Rutledge, Brown, and Reinbold voting against. 

The board then considered the original motion, to give Rutledge authority to select a lawyer, and Hall said it made her uncomfortable. 

“I’m against relinquishing my ability to look at who the potential attorneys are and having input on that,” she said. 

She suggested the board choose three attorney finalists and consider selecting one. 

Hall also asked who had advised Rutledge to hire outside counsel (in addition to the district’s current lawyer) — a question he dodged at a meeting last week

He said he’d gotten the information from the Idaho School Boards Association website. Brown then read a legal disclaimer from the ISBA that says “each member district should retain legal counsel for the purpose of obtaining legal advice, information, recommendations, or other legal assistance.”

The board voted to give Rutledge the power to select an attorney on a 3-2 vote, with Rutledge, Brown, and Reinbold voting in favor.

Misty Swanson, ISBA’S executive director, clarified on Tuesday that the ISBA “was not consulted” about the matter.

“We did not advise on the board hiring ‘special’ or ‘separate’ legal counsel than what the district typically does, nor do we suggest the board delegate that authority to one individual board member,” Swanson wrote in an email to EdNews. “In the spirit of accountability and transparency, boards should go through a vetting process to ensure they are hiring the most qualified attorney to advise them.”

West Bonner’s Monday school board meeting
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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