Judge blocks N. Idaho school board from taking action until recall vote is official

Two hours before Friday’s hastily scheduled West Bonner School District meeting, a magistrate judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking any actions that would alter the structure of the board or obligate the school district contractually or financially.

First Judicial District Magistrate Judge Lori Meulenberg wrote that actions proposed in Friday’s meeting agenda could have caused “incomprehensible irreparable harm” to the school district.

The order is in effect until the results of Tuesday’s successful recall election targeting Chair Keith Rutledge and Vice Chair Susan Brown are official. That is expected to happen on Thursday.

Two West Bonner voters — Peggylee Smith and Dana Douglas — who were part of the recall effort filed the complaint with the court seeking the restraining order. Smith and Douglas alleged that the special meeting violated Idaho’s law on open meetings, and action items on the agenda threatened to “subvert ... lawful election results.”

Activists who planned to attend the meeting in Priest River told the Idaho Statesman that it was canceled after the judge’s decision.

The North Idaho school board was scheduled to convene the meeting Friday at 6 p.m. Mountain time with a lengthy agenda, three days after school district voters overwhelmingly recalled the two trustees.

The agenda said there would be a “reorganization of the board,” led by controversial new Superintendent Branden Durst.

The agenda called for dissolving the current five-member board of trustees, turning the meeting over to Durst and electing a new board chair. It also included action on Durst’s superintendent contract and right to legal counsel, as well as consideration of legal action against the Idaho State Board of Education.

Word of the special meeting caused a stir. One trustee said she was left in the dark about the plans, and activists who led the effort to recall Rutledge and Brown were outraged. The recalled trustees officially retain their positions until the election results are official, according to Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane.

“I’m seriously concerned that it is a concerted effort to tie the hands of the next board by the decisively-recalled two board members, Mr. Durst and others before the terms of Mr. Rutledge and Ms. Brown’s end with the official canvassing confirmation,” West Bonner Trustee Margaret Hall told the Idaho Statesman by email.

Reached by phone, Durst declined to comment on what the board planned. Rutledge and Brown did not respond to emailed questions from the Statesman.

Durst said he instructed trustees “not to communicate with the media.”

The special meeting was set to take place at Priest River Lamanna High School’s cafeteria.

Emails: Durst sought election law clarity amid board power struggle

According to emails obtained by the Statesman, Durst this week asked secretary of state officials to confirm that the recalled trustees wouldn’t be removed from office until the election was certified.

On Wednesday, Durst asked Sheryl Millard, assistant manager of the secretary of state’s elections division, to clarify how the statute governing recall elections is “operationalized,” according to the emails.

“I have competing board members seeking to control the board at this point and I need to know who has the statutory authority to act,” he said.

In another email, Durst shared an excerpt from the secretary of state’s election handbook that says recalled officers are removed following a canvass of votes, when an election is certified. After Millard told Durst that an office attorney was looking into the matter, Durst pressed that the handbook “is clear.”

“I think deviating from that at this point could be seen as highly problematic,” he said.

Deputy Secretary of State Rob McQuade later confirmed that the handbook was correct.

Timing of meeting ‘highly inappropriate,’ trustee said

On Tuesday, roughly two out of three voters in the West Bonner School District recalled Rutledge and Brown.

Recall Replace Rebuild, a political action committee that led the effort, alleged that the trustees failed to uphold their oaths to improve public schools, were disrespectful of their constituents and fellow school board members, and lacked concern for students, The Spokesman-Review reported.

Douglas, chairwoman of Recall Replace Rebuild, told the Statesman that she was “disgusted” and “discouraged as an Idaho citizen” by the decision to call the meeting after the recall election.

“We do the right thing and we go through the laws and we do exactly what we’re supposed to do, and it doesn’t matter,” Douglas said by phone. “They can get away with anything and they can do whatever, because we have no one in the state to stand up and help us and enforce the laws.”

The timing of Friday’s meeting, the evening before a three-day weekend and shortly after a recall election, was “highly inappropriate,” Hall told the Statesman.

“Since both recalled trustees can serve in their full capacity as board members until next Thursday, we should not be reorganizing the board,” she said. “There are no definitive vacancies until that time.”

Hall said that she and Trustee Carlyn Barton weren’t aware of the meeting until an agenda notice appeared in their email inboxes Thursday afternoon. Barton and Hall voted for Durst’s competitor in June when the board selected a new superintendent amid a contentious hiring process. Brown, Rutledge and Troy Reinbold supported the candidacy of Durst, who had no experience as a school administrator or teacher, and lacked the necessary certification to be a superintendent.

In the past, during annual organization meetings each January, the board had allowed the district superintendent to take over meetings and call for nominations of board leadership positions, Hall said. But she called that process “incorrect” and said it should be changed.

Secretary of state: Recall is official next week

McGrane said Friday that the recall of Rutledge and Brown will take effect on Thursday, Sept. 7, when votes from Tuesday’s election become official.

In a news release, McGrane said his office received several inquiries about the recall election and worked closely with the Bonner County clerk’s office “to ensure an accurate and secure election.” The 63% voter turnout for Tuesday’s election was “unprecedented,” McGrane said.

“The results were clear in the affirmative to recall two school board members,” McGrane said in the release. “All public officials serve at the pleasure of the people. I encourage everyone to respect the election process and the will of the people of West Bonner who voted on Tuesday.”