A Lesson For Voters–Why we need to pay attention
The takeover of the West Bonner County (Idaho) School District (WBCSD) got under way in the off-year general election in November of 2021. In Zone 2 of the WBCSD voter engagement was particularly dismal. Candidate Susan Brown won a seat on the WBCSD school board over two other candidates with 176 votes out of just 349 cast. Well over a thousand registered voters didn’t bother to cast a ballot.*
That year the story was the same in Zone 4 of WBCSD. Keith Rutledge won another of the five school board seats with just 244 votes, only 7 more votes than the other candidate, in a race with similarly dismal voter turnout.*
The WBCSD is geographically large. The district is centered on Priest River and includes the communities of Laclede, Oldtown, Blanchard, and Coolin. (See map.) It serves just under a thousand students. (For contrast, Spokane Public Schools student population is nearly 30 times that.) The WBCSD is divided into five zones (similar to Central Valley School District in Spokane valley). Each zone of WBCSD elects a member to the board. (In contrast, Spokane Public Schools elects board members district-wide.)
Mr. Rutledge (Zone 4) and Ms. Brown (Zone 2) took office on the WBCSD school board in 2022. By August they began showing their ideological colors. That month, in an action that produced only a little news, Brown, Rutledge were joined by Trustee Reinbold (elected in 2019) and voted to revoke the previous approval of the district’s English language arts curriculum. They cited “liberal indoctrination” as the boogeyman of the rejected curriculum. The move cost the district at least ten thousand dollars, contributed to the resignation of Superintendent of Schools Jackie Branum, and left the curriculum in disarray with no replacement. (Tellingly, some community members recommended adoption of a curriculum developed by the ultra-conservative Hillsdale College, a curriculum not listed among the Idaho State Department of Education’s approved curricular materials.)
In the May 2023 primary election Rutledge and Brown publicly refused to support a replacement school levy for the district. The levy failed district-wide on a vote of 1595 for and 1700 against, leaving the district with a loss of a third of its budget.
In June of 2023 during a raucous meeting Rutledge and Brown were again joined by Mr. Reinbold, in voting 3-2 to hire a controversial figure, Branden Durst, an education policy analyst for the ultra-conservative, “free market” Idaho Freedom Foundation, as the new Superintendent of Schools for WBCSD. Durst, although he lacked the credentials required for the position, was elected by the board over the highly qualified interim Superintendent, Susan Luckey. Alarm bells started to ring. The Idaho Freedom Foundation is a staunch antagonist of public schooling.
The Coeur d’Alene Press published this bizarre justification by Rutledge of the choice of Durst for superintendent:
“At this day, at this time, I think Susie Luckey is an excellent superintendent for a school district that was highly functioning and is running smoothly,” board chairman Keith Rutledge said. “At this point, I think that change needs to happen. And I think Branden is the guy to do that.”
Could the not-so-smooth functioning have to do with losing a third of the budget?
Durst wasted no time in stirring up controversy by firing district office staff and calling for a “forensic audit”. Since the levy failure, 31 teachers left the district. School board meetings over the summer were heated. To many it seemed that Durst, along with Trustees Rutledge, Brown, and Reinbold were taking a wrecking ball to the school district.
The electorate finally, belatedly, woke up to this insanity. In a campaign titled Recall, Replace, Rebuild a group self-identified as Idaho Moms 7b collected signatures from the respective school board zones to hold a recall election of Rutledge and Brown.
If there were any question as to the far right Republican culture warrior credentials of these two, Susan Brown was open about dispelling that doubt:
“I led the investigation into the Wonders K-12 curriculum recommended by Susie Luckey which was riddled with (critical race theory) derived teaching methods and was 20% over budget. When we found out that the (social emotional learning) being pushed by the recall organizers was a backdoor through Idaho law to promote CRT and LGBTQ+/- agendas, I led the effort to send it right back to its publishers,” Brown said.
The special election (with the recalls as the sole ballot item) was held on August 29. Thanks to the effort of many concerned voters the result was overwhelming. The special election produced a “presidential election turnout” with 61% of voters on average in the two Zones casting a ballot. The tallies were decisive, Brown was recalled 624 to 322 votes, Rutledge by 762 to 454. (Contrast that to the 176 and 244 that elected the two, respectively, in 2021.)
But the drama was still not over. The recall wouldn’t be final until certified in the “official canvass” by the Bonner County Board of Commissioners on September 7th, nine days after the election. In that gap, the WBCSD Board, led by Rutledge and Brown, despite the slap down of the recall election, sought to hold a special lame duck meeting in which they planned to firm up Durst’s contract, presumably in the hope that the new board would be unable to remove him. In addition they were prepared to vote on an item that would have required the district to pay [Durst’s] full salary if he was terminated for any reason. This from two board members, Rutledge and Brown, who pretended to be fiscal conservatives.
Fortunately, members of the group that pushed for the recall were vigilant. Having gotten wind of the meeting, they successfully appealed to a local judge for a temporary restraining order “prohibiting the board from taking any action that would financially or contractually obligate the district until the recall was certified.”
So much for any notion of democracy and “the will of the people” from these two right wing culture warriors.
The lesson: If you don’t pay attention to who’s running—even among school board candidates—and vote accordingly—you risk ceding governance—and public education—to a minority of determined extremists.
It will take time for the dust settle after this controversy in West Bonner County, Idaho, but the electorate has awakened to the threat and is newly empowered.
It would have required a whole lot less sweat and tears if more voters had paid attention in 2021. Let that be a lesson for the upcoming November election here in eastern Washington.
Keep to the high ground,
*Exact numbers are hard to come by for 2021. The West Priest River precinct (with 691 registered voters) is split between Zone 2 and Zone 4 of the WBCSD.
P.S. For more on this story (but without the late twist of the Temporary Restraining Order) I recommend RANGEmedia.co’s coverage:
and Ballotpedia’s details at:
P.P.S. Take note that all this occurred in a Bonner County, a county in which two thirds of the voters in the 2020 election marked their ballot for Donald Trump. Clearly, many of those in the two zones of the WBCSD board who voted to recall Rutledge and Brown, the two public school trashing ideologues, were folks in the habit of voting for Republicans. It is heartening to see that many Republicans, even in Idaho, value public education.