The Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) has already shown us how to drive a storied community college to the brink of ruin. IFF board chair Brent Regan and his wrecking crew have just about finished off North Idaho College (NIC). Now IFF is demonstrating its plan to discredit and dismantle Idaho’s public schools, starting with West Bonner County School District (WBCSD) centered in Priest River.
IFF helped to get far-right candidates Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown elected to the school board in November of 2021, making a three-trustee majority that has been creating havoc ever since. The majority refused to support a $4.7 million two-year levy that was intended to cover about a third of WBCSD’s annual operating budget. Thanks to a good deal of misinformation leading up to the May 15 vote, the levy failed by just over 100 votes, putting the district in an extreme financial bind. The blame for the failure falls upon the IFF-supported majority.
Now, the board majority has voted to install an unqualified IFF employee as superintendent of WBCSD. After a three-ring circus of missteps, the majority voted on June 28 to hire Branden Durst, a problematic person to say the least, as the person in charge of running the district. Judging from his track record, he certainly is capable of running the school district into the ground. That would be in keeping with the IFF’s avowed goal of getting the government out of the business of educating our children.
The tragedy is that the interim superintendent, Susan Luckey, a 2018 Distinguished National Principal who has spent nearly four decades in the district as a teacher and principal, was readily available for the position. Many long-time residents of Priest River were greatly distressed about the hiring debacle, pointing to the IFF’s track record of fighting against adequate funding for public schools. WBCSD patron Nicole Gunning-Butler expressed fears of IFF’s, “relentless attempts to dismantle rural school districts and advance their extreme political and religious agenda.” She and her husband, who graduated from Priest River High School and served in the U.S. Navy, have two children attending schools in the district.
School district patrons are concerned about the appearance of backroom dealing by the board majority in arriving at the hiring decision. The Idaho Education News has highlighted what appear to be violations of Idaho’s Open Meeting Law by the IFF-supported board, as well as the board’s refusal to respond to public record requests.
WBCSD patrons are not taking these shenanigans lying down, however. Rather, they are showing that concerned citizens around the state can fight back against those who would subvert our public school system. Local folks got busy organizing petition drives to recall Rutledge and Brown. They turned in their petitions at the end of June with more than enough signatures to recall both of the troublesome trustees. They gathered 337 signatures to recall Rutledge, although only 243 were necessary to schedule an election. Brown received 243 recall signatures, while only 180 were needed. If the two do not voluntarily step down, an election will be held on August 29.
Durst does not have the credentials to serve as superintendent and must receive provisional certification from the Idaho Board of Education in order to act in that role.
That is where the rest of us can lend a hand in order to protect WBCSD from further disaster. Idahoans concerned about persons hostile to public schools being given important education positions should make their concerns known to members of the Idaho Board of Education, as well as Governor Brad Little. If the board majority tries to keep Durst without the certification, a patron lawsuit could send him packing.
The IFF is trying to commandeer other rural school district boards across the state. The WBCSD experience shows that IFF can fail, but it depends upon concerned citizens rising up to protect their schools.