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Parents, Durst debate issues, concerns

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | June 28, 2023 1:00 AM

PRIEST RIVER — The parents made it clear to Branden Durst, hired to lead the West Bonner County School District, that, many in the community didn't want him.

He responded that he looked forward to changing their minds.

"Do you feel good about coming into the community that very clearly doesn't want you?" asked one parent.

"Yes," Durst said. "Because I like a challenge … I look forward to proving people wrong."

Durst, who was surrounded by several dozen district residents, took 15-20 minutes Wednesday, June 21, to talk to parents and the community while the board was in an executive session.

The conversation ranged from staffing, job security for district staff, and protection for students, including those who identify as transgender, to calls that he turn down the job since a majority of the community didn't want him as superintendent.

He told the crowd said he was invested in the community and wanted to work with them to make the district better. If he fails in his efforts, Durst said it would be within the board's right to address his contract.

"If all your worst fears come to fruition and I do an absolutely crappy job, and if I'm doing things that are bad for the district, the board would be within its right to [address the matter.]"

However, parents said they didn't trust the current board — and were launching a recall against several board members.

"We don't trust to do what's right," one parent said. "But when we recall them, which we are doing, we will be successful. And that will be a different story for you."

Durst said the issue, until it happens, remains hypothetical.

If his contract is approved, Durst said he recognizes he has a lot to learn. He said he talked to someone at the Idaho School District Association who said it's typical for new superintendents to feel as if they were in over their heads for their first year.

"No matter how much experience they have, it's just a hard job," Durst said. "I mean, I don't think people appreciate that it is not an easy job. It's quite … it's a hard job to do well, and a lot of people come in the first year, and it's just like drinking from a firehose."

Even when the district is well run and everyone is happy, Durst said he was told the first year is a challenge.

"Then imagine coming into a position [like this] and that makes it even harder," he added.

Durst's attempts to reassure parents that he planned to observe and learn his first year instead seemed to upset them when he gave the caveat that "most" staff had little to fear. He said those decisions were matters for the board to decide, again prompting murmurs of disagreement with those gathered rejoining that while the board was his boss, he was the boss of everyone else.

"The staff that are doing their job are safe," Durst told the crowd.

"So no," a parent quickly responded.

Others questioned how he could assess the district's staff when he has no experience or training, and knows little about the community or its students.

Durst again attempted to assure the crowd he had no immediate plans to make changes, but that only served to sow further concerns when he said that "with only a couple of exceptions," the certificated staff was safe.

In explaining his comments, Durst said he planned to add peer and 360-degree evaluations, involving both the community and fellow teachers. He said he plans to have administrators identify the best teacher in each building and have them observe and evaluate the other teachers in the building.

The three-pronged approach would allow teachers in similar grades to evaluate each other anonymously. However, Durst said that feedback would "absolutely" be used to determine whether staff would be retained in response to a question from the parents. However, he said he had not yet made a decision.

That caused the crowd of several dozen parents and community members gathered on the sidewalk in front of the district office to again ask whether staff — from administrators to central office staff — was safe.

"So you're thinking about letting these people go and you haven't even started yet? Because you said, 'I don't know.' 'I haven't decided that yet.' You haven't even worked with them and you're already thinking about letting them go."

Durst said while he hadn't made up his mind, he had "to trust the staff that you have, especially in [the] central office."

Several parents questioned Durst on his background and connections, saying he was paying attention to the wrong people. They noted his connections to the Idaho Freedom Foundation and told him to stop aligning himself with the wrong people.

Durst, who served as a senior policy analyst on education for IFF, said the IFF's stance that public education should be dismantled was not his.

"It was a position that I could do well," Durst said in response to a question of why he worked for the group if he didn't align with its views.

"There's a difference between saying that I don't support anything they do and saying that there are things that I disagree with," he added.

The crowd also questioned Durst on where he stood on parent choice in schools, even if that meant something other than Christian theology.

"I support the limiting of government. I think that our government is too bloated," Durst said. "I think that's true at almost every level of government. I believe that we do need to increase school choice 100%."

While many in the crowd said they appreciated him taking the time to talk, they also made it clear that he was not wanted and nothing he said could change that.

"You're right," one parent said in response to Durst's comment that the community had elected the board, which in turn had offered him the position. "We elected them because unfortunately our voters were very complacent lately so people didn't go to the polls, but thanks to you, my friend. They're no longer complacent, they're no longer lazy. And so we're registering now so I always look for the blessing in everything and thank God for everything. And I thank God for you coming into this town because we are awake. You called us woke, you called me woke, on Facebook. I am awake. These people are awake. You could call us woke all you want but we are done."