From ‘separation of church and state’ to ‘conservatism,’ West Bonner leader fields variety of questions

Some of superintendent Branden Durst’s town hall responses inspired sporadic clapping here and there, but other answers caused drawn-out cackles and loud moans of disapproval.

Fulfilling a promise to be accessible to the taxpayers and parents of West Bonner School District, Durst scheduled a series of town hall meetings at three schools. The Aug. 12 meeting at Priest River Lamanna High School at 10 a.m. is the final one.

“My job is not to represent one side or the other. My job is to do the best job for this district. I happen to believe in a perspective that I was very clear with the board before I got hired. I didn’t hide that from anybody. But I’m not going to change my perspective,” Durst told an audience at his July 25 town hall.

There were the expected questions about curriculum, finance and extracurricular programs, but parents also pressed for answers about his conservative ideology, political aspirations and his personal views on the separation of church and state.

“I want to prove to those folks in the educational establishment that we can do things differently, that you can be conservative — and lead conservatively — and you can lead a district to the greatest heights it’s ever seen,” he said.

Because Durst used the term conservative in conjunction with leadership, someone asked for more explanation. 

Under his leadership, Durst said, the district will scrutinize carefully how money is spent to ensure that “every penny” is accounted for and being used appropriately.

Being fiscally conservative drew little to no reaction from the audience. But what did cause a visceral reaction was his statement that “we need to be the Florida of the United States.” 

The audience could be heard cackling, audibly moaning and chuckling.

“It may be in a different way than you like it, but at the end of the day, that’s why I’m here,” he said.

Another person asked for clarification about when he would apply for this emergency provisional certificate. If granted by the State Board of Education, the certificate would allow Durst to fulfill his role as superintendent without restrictions.

Durst previously stated that a Board of Education error with his predecessor’s provisional certificate precluded him from applying. West Bonner School Board chairman Keith Rutledge asked the State Board in an email to correct that error so Durst’s application could be submitted.

“We are demanding that (the State Board) immediately rescind its approval and provide a letter to WBCSD indicating that the corrective action, as required by law, has been completed. We look forward to submitting a valid application for your approval upon receipt of the letter requested above,” Rutledge wrote.

This week, State Board executive director Matt Freeman responded to Rutledge’s claim in a six-page rebuttal letter clarifying that no error occurred.

In Durst’s response to the application question during the town hall, he expressed that his current credentials should be considered adequate for the job of superintendent.

“What I am trying to do is dispel the myth that’s being promoted that if you don’t have all of these other things for this job, that you can’t do this job — and that’s just not true,” he said. “For some reason, the state of Idaho has decided to allow charter administrators to serve in that position without even having the training that I have.”

Scott Graf, State Department of Education communications director, said Idaho code requires that an individual serving as a superintendent be properly certified.

“However, as currently written, Idaho code does not expressly state that the Department of Education can compel an individual or district to apply for the required certification,” Graf wrote in a statement.

But if Durst does not obtain certification, the code “directs the superintendent of public instruction” to withhold state payments to a local district for any professional positions being occupied by uncertified individuals, he explained.

“The department is provided substantial oversight authority, though, when it comes to matters like district budgeting and school finance, federal reimbursements, special education, and transportation safety. We are currently compiling a list of areas in which the West Bonner School District under Mr. Durst’s leadership – is failing to meet state-mandated requirements, and we will communicate these to the district in the coming days,” Graf wrote.

In a written message to EdNews, Durst said he is missing one requirement for obtaining a superintendent’s endorsement: Four years of full-time certificated or licensed experience working with students while under contract in an accredited school setting.

There are four other requirements: a doctorate degree or comparable education; an administrative internship in a state board approved program; completion of a post-master’s, school superintendent program; and an institutional recommendation for a superintendent endorsement.

EdNews submitted a public records request to Boise State University to verify if Durst has the institutional recommendation. Spokesperson Mike Sharp wrote, “The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 is a federal law that restricts institutions of higher education from releasing education records.”

It is unclear whether Durst has met four out of the five or three out of the five endorsement requirements.

Branden Durst (right) speaks with West Bonner patrons during one of three town hall meetings.

When asked his opinion about the separation of church and state, Durst said his response is personal and does not reflect the school district’s or the superintendent’s position.

“That separation of church and state is a myth. It’s a legal fiction, and our US Supreme Court has had the wisdom in the last three terms to recognize that,” he said.

“But to the extent that we will not have to refrain people’s rights to their religious expression, that is what I will always support. If we have coaches that want to pray at halftime or at the game at midfield, you will have my 100% blessing, and I would probably go join them.”

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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