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Parents, students rally support for West Bonner teachers

by DARREN SVAN / Contributing writer
| July 18, 2023 1:00 AM

PRIEST RIVER — West Bonner school board chair Keith Rutledge’s suggestion that teachers don’t deserve a raise sparked a local campaign to boost morale for the 82 teachers who will return to the classroom next month.

At a town hall meeting early this month, Rutledge suggested the district could fund extracurricular and co-curricular programs if teachers are given a smaller 3-4% pay raise, but they don’t even deserve that much. Those programs are under threat because the district’s $9.4 million supplementary levy proposal — about 33% of its annual operating budget — failed in May.

Rutledge’s comments drew the ire of one former teacher, Whitney Urmann, who sponsors a Facebook page called Support West Bonner County School District. According to Urmann, the page is a platform for the community to find information — mainly critical of Rutledge and recently hired superintendent Branden Durst, which created an outcry in the community.

Rutledge and vice chair Susan Brown face a recall election on Aug. 29 because of the controversial hiring of Durst and their recommendation to conduct a forensic audit.

“I just became more and more angry at most of the way that teachers are being treated, even across the country,” Urmann said.

The teachers of West Bonner have been vilified for controversial issues creating turmoil at the national level: gender, diversity, critical race theory and social-emotional learning, according to Urmann, a licensed fourth-grade teacher.

“They’re really disappointed,” she said.

Urmann gathered comments through her page so trustees can “see what incredible teachers we have had and our teachers to know they are loved.”

The community had a lot to say about West Bonner teachers.

The campaign surpassed 100 comments spanning 20 pages. Urmann plans to provide trustees with copies of those comments. She will also provide a copy to teachers who are mentioned “to kind of boost morale a little bit,” she said.

“Our kids are raised for six to seven hours per day by these people for nine months and for 12 years of their lives. They matter. They are valuable. Good teachers are hard to come by and they deserve to be treated as the valuable people in society that they are,” one parent wrote. Additional comments are listed at the bottom of this article.

On Friday, EdNews requested that trustees and Durst provide details about their current negotiations over teacher salaries. Among eight other questions, we asked how much the district is proposing to raise salaries and how many teacher vacancies need to be filled. They were also asked to address Rutledge’s statement about lowering teachers’ pay raises.

Trustee Margaret Hall provided the only response.

In January, the board appointed Hall and Rutledge to the committee that is negotiating with the West Bonner County Education Association. Open to the public, the next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the district office. Durst also attends the negotiations, Hall confirmed.

“There is no timeframe in which negotiations have to be concluded. Hopefully we will be able to do so in the next week or so. In order to move forward through negotiations, the parties need to determine which numbers we are in agreement with, which we are not, and why. We are trying to work through that process now,” Hall wrote in response.

The district adopted a $9.6 million temporary budget last week that provides limited details about how funds will be spent. As it stands now, salaries are set to be reduced by $431,965.

Community remembers educators who provide positive influence

Listed below are examples of what the community thinks about the teachers of Priest River Elementary, Priest Lake Elementary, Idaho Hill Elementary, Priest River Junior High School and Priest River Lamanna High School.

• As a mom of kids in this district and a teacher I want you to know that the teachers in this district are unique. They could leave (and many have) and get more money, more resources to help students, and have a board that supports them, but they don’t. They keep showing up for the kids. These teachers spend their spare time worrying about their students in the evenings, over weekends, holidays, etc., and then on Monday they show up, get them focused and ready to learn. I encourage you, and invite you to sit in on a day in the life of a teacher. Watch, listen, and take note of all they juggle in a day. They are a nurse, counselor, speech tech, hair stylist, mom, referee, and of course teacher to their students. They fill many roles, and each one is done because they believe they can make a difference and the kids in this community deserve to have someone believe in them!

• Priest Lake Elementary was the best elementary school that I have ever been around. My child loved going there. He had a learning disability and the teachers were great with him.

• As a community member that donates volunteer time to good causes I appreciate the schools always going the extra mile to help us. They don’t have to when it’s not necessarily a school event but they do cause it’s the right thing to do to help your community. I applaud teachers and all staff! I could never do their job.

• I am a 12-year student of PRLHS and graduated with honors in 2017. I continued on to achieve my bachelor’s in accounting at Lewis-Clark State College in 2021 — also achieving honor cords! I am now a business owner in Priest River. Brown & Rutledge keep saying we have low test scores, however myself and many of my classmates have all graduated with bachelor’s and master’s and are very successful today.

• Teachers are what MAKE school. To say the teachers aren’t worth the money they deserve is the same as saying children don’t deserve a quality education. The children of this community deserve good teachers, which means the teachers must be paid a living wage so they can stay!

• You have robbed my younger children’s confidence in our schools. You have made it so with your personal agendas that my children’s favorite reliable staff have had to make the choice to leave. Shame on you. Thank you Margi and Carlyn for not giving in and continuing to fight for our kids.

• I also watched my father, who taught science at PRHS, as he created a ski club that offered every single student at PRHS an opportunity to learn to ski, independent of financial ability to pay. He believed in helping young people to develop skills and healthy habits that they could practice across their lifespans. Every teacher I met during my 12 years at PR schools was completely dedicated to their students’ growth and well-being. Everyone. I hope you will recognize the skills, dedication, and wisdom of our teachers, and reward them accordingly.

• “I have friends that teach in other Inland Northwest schools and cannot believe the wage discrepancy. Not only are our teachers some of the lowest paid in the INW we also have some of the least home availability and highest rental cost. They experience the recent inflation threefold. We need to support our teachers, without them we have no future. They partner with parents to create ethical, smart, productive adults some of whom will one day lead our community, our state or maybe even represent our country.

• Our teachers are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Their love and compassion for ALL of these kids and OUR community are unmatched. The strength and dedication to the schools deserve praise. They deserve more than the measly 3% raise to live on. They don’t deserve to be treated this way. Not giving your teachers the financial support that they deserve is ludicrous. It disgusts me that the chairman of the board can make comments about how our teachers are not worth the percentage they are being offered when he has never seen the impact they have on children because he doesn’t know anyone in the community, BY HIS OWN ADMISSION.

• I may have homeschooled my senior due to an injury, but I will still support this school district and these teachers. The teachers there and the life lessons they taught me will not be forgotten and will be with me for the rest of my life. Those teachers are why I want to get into teaching and become one myself!

• Every teacher I have ever had has told, taught, or showed me something that I have carried outside of school whether it be educational and life lessons:

Mrs. Cook taught me how to make friends.

Mrs. Turner taught me the importance of reading.

Mrs. Duquette taught me how to stick up for myself, even if it’s against bullies bigger and older than me.

Mrs. Philopoff taught me that no student, including myself, was ever stupid or dumb.

Mrs. Young taught me that, even if I didn’t succeed at something immediately, I was still a good student.

Mr. Keating taught me how to respect history.

Mr. Keinert taught me that everyone learns differently, even teachers, and that’s OK.

Mrs. Sullins taught me the importance of accepting those around me.

Mrs. Jeffers showed me how to understand and resonate with others’ emotions.

Mr. Landry taught me every state and country possible.

Mr. Weiler showed me that even I could survive a math class with a little science experiment break.

Mrs. Hoodenpyle taught me how to stick up for others.

Mrs. Trost showed me how to show my work clearly.

Mr. Ballenger taught me that excellence requires patience.

Mrs. Acharya showed me that, even as meek and quiet as I was, I was still deserving of help and attention.

Mr. Lily told me that my beliefs and opinions mattered, even though some may say they don’t.

Mrs. Colombini taught me how to lead with kindness.

Mrs. Pavey told me that I must know my own importance, even in the face of those who don’t.

Mrs. Simon taught me that I must lead with confidence and bravery.

Mr. Baron taught me about film.

Mr. Hansen showed me that U.S. history could be engaging and fun.

Mr. Bean taught me that even the meekest of characters can have the mightiest of destinies.

Mr. Caldwell taught me that you truly can do anything you set your mind to.

I cannot express my thanks enough to all of our teachers, it is a thankless job and it is extremely challenging work. They deserve the full amount approved by the state. Please help our students by paying their teachers!

• The teachers are undervalued and deserve not only a raise, but the support of the community. They need to know the community and especially the elected board are in their corner. If these board members can’t do that they should step down.

This story was originally published by Idaho Education News on July 17, 2023.