UPDATED: West Bonner trustees one step closer to finalizing Durst hire

Updated at 3:56 p.m. on June 23 with information about an upcoming meeting to consider Durst’s contract. 

PRIEST RIVER — A divided West Bonner School Board agreed on Wednesday to come together to finalize contract negotiations for Branden Durst, who was selected as the district’s next superintendent. 

Chair Keith Rutledge and Trustee Carlyn Barton (who have disagreed on a number of recent issues) will form a committee of two to negotiate with Durst on behalf of the board. Trustees plan to meet Wednesday to consider Durst’s contract and addendum, according to an agenda released Friday

And the board also voted to “accept the amount for the separation agreement” between the district and former Superintendent Jackie Branum, who abruptly resigned in March. 

Both issues were discussed in closed executive sessions after Wednesday’s regular board meeting, but were voted on publicly. 

Read more about a potential open meetings violation, an upcoming Monday board meeting, and why former superintendent Jackie Branum left the district here.

Otherwise, trustees postponed a number of controversial decisions during the public meeting, including whether to pay for outside counsel to assist with Durst’s contract. 

And district patrons, who were invited to offer public comment on Durst’s potential hire for the first time, largely urged trustees to offer the job to Interim Superintendent Susie Luckey instead. 

The selection of Durst — formerly a Democratic lawmaker and Republican state superintendent candidate, and now an analyst for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hardline conservative organization — has stirred animosity in the small community. A controversial political figure, his unusual contract requests and lack of the required K-12 education experience have some locals calling for him to be ousted from the role before he’s even started. 

Durst’s hire was approved on a 3-2 vote on June 7, and since then, the board’s division has become stark: the members who voted for him (Chair Keith Rutledge; Vice Chair Susan Brown; and Trustee Troy Reinbold) versus those who did not (Trustees Margaret Hall and Carlyn Barton). 

Lawmakers and education leaders from around the state are paying attention to Durst’s potential hire, because what happens in Priest River could have implications for the rest of the state. Read more here.

Their discord was clear Wednesday when Hall called out Rutledge, Brown and Reinbold, for allegedly using a script at a June 14 meeting that they refused to share with Hall and Barton.

Hall said it amounted to a violation of open meeting laws. 

“I am actually following up on that with the county prosecutor,” Hall said. 

Hall also put Rutledge in check about a newsletter he penned and posted without sharing it with other board members. In the newsletter, Rutledge sought to dispel rumors about how trustees will shore up a budget gap. He also acknowledged the district’s recent leadership turnovers — including three new board members and four new superintendents (if Durst is officially hired) in the past year. 

When it came to one of the evening’s more controversial decisions — whether the board should hire its own lawyer to offer guidance on Durst’s contract, and conduct a forensic audit — the lack of trust among board members resurfaced yet again. 

When Hall asked Rutledge why the board needed an outside lawyer (the district has one already), Rutledge answered that he had “been advised” to do so. 

When Hall asked who had given him the advice, Rutledge skirted the question and said he had done his own research, but couldn’t remember where the information came from. 

Ultimately, trustees tabled the decision until the July meeting so some questions could be answered — including how Rutledge concluded that another lawyer was needed, and especially since the district is facing budget shortfalls. 

Members of the public call for Luckey to be the next superintendent

After two recent and contentious meetings when unruly patrons spoke and yelled out of turn, audience members were comparatively well-behaved at Wednesday’s meeting, when they had their first opportunity to speak publicly about Durst’s selection as superintendent. 

Seven speakers took the podium, and most were critical of recent board decisions. 

In response, those in attendance silently shimmied their fingers in the air — but did not yell, clap, or cheer. 

Paul Turco urged Brown, Reinbold, and Rutledge to “add their names to the list of resignations,” referring to a report earlier in the meeting about six resignations at Priest River Elementary. And he offered to become a trustee himself. 

“You’ve lost the faith of the community,” he said. “You’ve cost the district time and money. Never has ignorance been an acceptable defense and it will not be accepted here.” 

Missy Hill criticized the same three trustees for “refusing to acknowledge overwhelming community support for Susie Luckey as the right choice as a qualified superintendent of West Bonner County.”

“Education and politics don’t mix,” Katie Elsaesser said about the selection of Durst. 

And she urged the district not to spend money on an outside lawyer. 

“Hiring outside counsel is a reckless disregard to the financial state and I don’t need a forensic audit to know that,” she said. 

Maureen Patterson thanked Rutledge, Brown, and Reinbold for “standing up for accountability and transparency.” 

A few patrons seated near the front spoke out of turn a few times during the meeting to ask questions or explain Idaho code to trustees, but they did not yell or insult board members. 

It’s unclear how many attended the meeting, but patrons did complain that the venue did not have enough space for the public. Online, more than 180 viewers tuned in.

Biological sex policy tabled

Another contentious agenda item was also tabled Wednesday — a draft policy on biological sex that was not posted with the board agenda or available online. 

Hall said the policy did not read like a legal document, and said she had asked whether it was reviewed by a lawyer and was not given an answer. She suggested the board instead use two policies drafted by the Idaho School Boards Association, including the controversial policy 3281 on gender identity and sexual orientation, since they had been reviewed by a lawyer. 

Trustees tabled the decision until they could read through the ISBA policies.

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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