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Voter turnout expected to double in West Bonner recall election

by DARREN SVAN / Idaho Education News
| August 25, 2023 1:00 AM

PRIEST RIVER — Bonner County officials expect twice the voter turnout for next week’s recall election than two years ago, when the school board trustees were first elected.

“There’s huge interest in this,” said Bonner County Clerk Michael Rosedale.

Embattled West Bonner chairman Keith Rutledge and vice chairwoman Susan Brown will learn their fate Tuesday when five voting precincts close at 8 p.m. Displeased patrons and parents mounted an effort to recall them following the controversial hiring of new superintendent Branden Durst.

At a town hall meeting Tuesday, Rutledge and Brown celebrated their accomplishments, resolute in a belief that their community wants change.

“We need a fresh culture. And that’s exactly what we were looking at when we were looking for a superintendent,” Rutledge said.

Brown said, “I hope that people will give Mr. Durst a chance at this job. I can tell you with the conversations I’ve had with him, he wholeheartedly really does want to do some fabulous things with the school district.”

“Over half of the district wants change, and that’s what we’ve done,” Rutledge added.

Five precincts open their polls at 8 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 29 — Oldtown, West Priest River, East Priest River, Edgemere and Laclede.

“I believe there will be a much higher than normal turnout, certainly much higher than when they were elected the first time,” Rosedale said.

When first elected, Rutledge and Brown garnered 485 and 359 votes, respectively.

As of Wednesday, over 300 votes were already cast: 244 absentee ballots and 59 early voters. There are 3,411 eligible voters. Early voting is available until Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the County Elections office.

This election could easily top 2,000 ballots cast, Rosedale said. “Tuesday you can vote at your precinct, and only at your precinct — not the administration building.”

At each of the five precincts, there will be poll watchers who are supposed to follow Rosedale’s guidelines.

“Usually we don’t get poll watchers, but we have watchers ‘for recall’ and ‘against recall’ at every precinct,” he said. “If there are any questions, they call me directly. They cannot be in a position to see how you vote. The world can know you voted, but the world is not allowed to know what your selection was, when you voted.”

Rosedale expects to pull $18,000 out of his budget for expenses: print ballots, hire poll workers, pay for rental trucks, rent the Priest River Event Center, buy newspaper spots and publish public notices.

Although a contentious election, Rosedale recalls only one complaint about poster-sized tarps on businesses supporting the recall effort that did not include language indicating who paid for them. “That was not intentional, and they have remedied that,” he said.

Trustees Brown and Rutledge spoke candidly at the town hall

The forensic audit. Brown was dissatisfied that her trustee packet was missing pages during finance committee meetings, and no one was concerned. She also found a $10,000 expense for personal protective equipment with no invoice. And no one could tell her who purchased it and where it was stored. “I would like for somebody to get back to me and let me know what we bought for $10,000,” she said. “I’m still waiting.”

Rutledge said budgets he reviewed did not include enough details and the time set aside for budget hearings was insufficient. “I couldn’t tell what constituted the budget,” he said. Leading up to the levy proposal, he asked to see budget shortfalls but they were never provided. “I asked for a budget. Show me the shortfalls, and then we’ll talk about it. That never happened.”

Trustees expect phase-one results from the audit Friday.

Superintendent Durst. Brown pointed to Durst’s run for state superintendent as evidence that he is popular in North Idaho. “He had won this district overwhelmingly,” she said. “We need to move together, not to one side or the other.” It was apparent during the interview that Durst had a business plan to help the district, and he’s already saved the district $800,000, she said. “And even though this is a school, a product is the students and the grades. The kids have to be first and foremost.”

Previous administrations left the district with a 63% graduation rate and 23% ISAT scores. “That performance needed to improve,” said Rutledge, who is an industrial engineer. The high school math department is stronger because Durst is hiring highly qualified teachers, he said. “They want to be part of the positive change. So I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in a very short period of time. And I will continue to do more of the same.”

The curriculum. Both Rutledge and Brown noted their opposition to any curriculum that includes social emotional learning, because that is a gateway to critical race theory. “If you don’t know, that is the gateway to CRT and we as a board could not live with that decision,” Rutledge said.

Brown concluded, “I hope that no matter what happens on the 29th, that people will still remember this is really supposed to be about the kids.”

This story was originally published online by Idaho Education News on Thursday.