North Idaho voters oust West Bonner school leaders by a convincing margin in recall

This story was originally published on on Aug. 30, 2023.

The terms of two West Bonner school board leaders have ended.

Chair Keith Rutledge and vice chair Susan Brown were recalled in Tuesday’s special election. EdNews was unable to reach either trustee for comment after the election.

The community decided that Brown and Rutledge did not uphold their oaths to improve West Bonner schools.

“I cried happy tears this morning because it’s been such an intense battle. The ‘against folks’ paint us in bad light saying we are woke liberal donkeys, and most of us behind the recall are conservative Republican, who just wanted school board members who listened to the community,” said Kylie Hoepfer, a parent and recall organizer who spent countless hours live-streaming school board and town hall meetings to ensure transparency.

Whitney Urmann, who was vocal in her desire to oust Brown and Rutledge, said, “I am ecstatic. It is so nice to know this craziness isn’t as far reaching as it can seem sometimes. I was involved because I am an educator and I have been very frustrated the past three years watching the narrative about teachers shifting into this ugly and untrue thing about indoctrination. I am also involved because it seems so un-American to me that a group of people will get elected and ignore their constituents.”

Tuesday’s voter turnout of 2,162 far outpaced their previous election, when 844 people went to the polls in 2021. Voters opted to recall Brown by a 65.96% to 34.04% margin; for Rutledge, it was 62.66% to 37.34%.

According to Idaho law, the board must now follow a series of steps in order to fill the two vacancies.

The board can declare a vacancy at a regular or special meeting and has 90 days to appoint someone from the zone where the vacancy occurred. If the board fails to find a suitable replacement, they are allowed to appoint someone from anywhere within the district’s boundaries. If there is no resolution after 120 days, county commissioners can make the appointment.

More than 2,000 votes were cast in the special election.

Appointees serve out the remainder of the term of office that was declared vacant. Both of their terms expire in 2025.

As of Wednesday morning, the school board has not scheduled a special meeting to declare vacancies, according to a district spokesperson.

Trustee Margaret Hall said the election is official “upon the canvass,” which is Sept. 7 at 10 a.m.

“That is when those apparently recalled will be done with their office,” Hall said. “Then next steps can and will be taken according to Idaho Code and (board) policies.”

On one active Facebook page supporting the recall — Support WBCSD Schools — the reaction was understandably celebratory:

  • “Priest River did the thing! I’m so proud of you all, neighbors!!! Let this be a lesson to other boards that try to implement extremist ideas — we WILL put kids first!”

  • “Kids come first and foremost.”

  • “Dearest Priest River friends and community at large, Congratulations on pulling together and pulling off this recall! I’m so very proud of all of you, your commitment and your hard work in getting this done. Pat yourselves on the back, and give plenty of congratulatory hugs and high fives and then get back to work! I’m afraid this isn’t over. This is only the beginning and where the truly hard work and diligence is going to be crucial.”

The conservative voting bloc of Rutledge, Brown and Troy Reinbold no longer controls the board, which has experienced a contentious few months. The trustee seats belonging to Carlyn Barton, Hall and Reinbold are up for election in November.

An effort to recall the two trustees started earlier this summer and gained momentum after the controversial hiring of new superintendent Branden Durst. According to the recall ballot, the reasons for recalling Brown and Rutledge are listed below:

  • Two months after voting to purchase a language arts curriculum, they brought forth a motion to rescind the purchase — which cost the district money to send the order back.

  • Trustees don’t recognize that a majority vote makes the decisions and the outcome needs to be supported by all members.

  • Trustees need to be actively involved in policy changes, as that is the board’s primary function and should be made after complete discussion at a publicly held board meeting — stop whispering to other board members during public meetings.

  • Trustees have a hidden agenda and don’t respect the rights of constituents and the opinions and ideas of fellow board members.

EdNews was unable to reach Durst for comment, and as of Wednesday morning, he had not posted on social media reaction to the election results.

But that’s all behind them now. As the district prepares to welcome students back next week, there are several administrative issues left unresolved: the recently hired special education director quit; trustees will be deciding if they will propose a new supplemental levy; they will be searching for ways to fully fund extracurricular activities; they’re in the midst of choosing an English language arts curriculum; and they were directed to fix compliance issues by the State Board of Education over school finance, transportation, special education and federal programs.

“Bottomline is that the community-at-large has to figure out how to work together as a team for the sake of our district’s young people. School starts next week,” Hall said.