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Court order forces end to WBCSD meeting

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | September 2, 2023 1:00 AM

PRIEST RIVER — The room was already packed when Priest River Police Chief Drew McLain entered the Priest River Lamanna High School cafeteria Friday, where a special West Bonner County School District board meeting was set to start at 5 p.m.

McLain told the crowd the controversial meeting was canceled because a Bonner County judge granted a restraining order sought by two Bonner County voters.

The standing-room-only crowd erupted in cheers.

"It was almost like being at a football game," Paul Turco said while outside the high school following the meeting's cancellation.

Turco was one of many Bonner County citizens who supported the recall of West Bonner School District trustees Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown, who were voted out Tuesday by a sizable margin.

The court order prohibits the school district from making any changes to the school board or authority granted to Superintendent Branden Durst until the recall results are official, which should be Thursday, Sept. 7 after the votes are canvassed by the county’s Board of Canvassers.

Friday's special meeting was noticed by the school district just after 4:30 p.m. Thursday. Among the items on the agenda were an action item to dissolve the current board and elect a new chairman. Also slated for discussion were a contract for legal representation, approval of additional phases of a forensic audit, and updates to Superintendent Branden Durst's contract.

The restraining order, filed by citizens Peggy A. Smith and Dana Douglas, prohibits any action at a board meeting that impacts the board structure, financially commits the district, or contractually obligates the school district in any way until after the recall election is canvassed, said attorney Katie Elsaesser, who filed the motion on the pair's behalf.

Smith lives in Zone 4 and voted to recall Rutledge, while Douglas lives in Zone 2 and voted to recall Brown.

"The judge read the verified complaint that Dana and Peggy filed and issued the restraining order,” Elsaesser said. “It is effective until the election results are certified."

All five trustees and Durst were served with the order via email, and Elsaesser said she would attempt personal service on Rutledge and Brown next week.

A hearing on the restraining order is set for Sept. 12, which can be dismissed.

"It's just a focus on following the wishes of the voters," Elsaesser said. "The voters recalled them. To try and contractually obligate future board members is unconscionable, as well as basically ignoring a valid election."

Elsaesser said the reasons for the special meeting, including changing Durst’s contract, did not benefit the district's students and did not meet state guidelines for special meetings.

Durst did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment on the meeting or the restraining order.

The order capped a day-long effort by residents to stop what they said were efforts to circumvent the successful recall vote.

"What they put on that agenda were things that could dramatically impact our school district, things that [remaining trustees Carlyn Barton and Margaret Hall] probably didn't know anything about," said Smith, who served on the school board from 2000 to 2013, explaining why she sought the restraining order.

Recall supporters celebrated the order.

"I am absolutely thankful that the system works, and how we've worked so hard to be on the right side of right," Sandy Brower said. "And it's just exhilarating to have backup from the courts today. And we know that that agenda had no good intent for our district, and it definitely was not anything on there to benefit kids."

The abrupt end to the day followed statements from both the Idaho State Department of Education and the Idaho Secretary of State's office, which received numerous calls and emails regarding the planned meeting.

"The department is aware of the meeting and will monitor," ISDE officials said in an email to the Daily Bee.

Furthermore, Idaho Code 33-501 states that "each school district shall be governed by a board of trustees," IDSE officials said.

"We are not aware of any statute that allows the board to rescind or transfer that authority,” said the ISDE. “In addition, we remind all local boards to follow open meeting laws established in Idaho statute."

The matter also prompted Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane to issue a statement. McGrane said his office worked closely with Bonner County Clerk Mike Rosedale's office to ensure a secure and accurate election.

"The 63% turnout for the West Bonner recall election earlier this week was unprecedented for an August election," McGrane said. "The results were clear in the affirmative to recall two school board members."

Both statements followed an exchange of emails between Rosedale, Durst and Secretary of State officials.

In the email thread, Durst wrote there was understanding of what the statute said, but district and county officials wanted clarity on how it should be "operationalized."

"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," Durst wrote in a Wednesday morning email to an official with the Secretary of State’s office.

Durst wrote that his understanding of the statute, and that of the Bonner County Clerk, was that the recalled members are not officially removed until the official canvass is certified, which the Secretary of State’s office affirmed.

Board trustee Margaret Hall said she and trustee Carlyn Barton were unaware of the meeting or its agenda until it showed up in their email inboxes late Thursday afternoon.

"Unfortunately, without any communications about tonight's meeting prior to the notice, 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," Hall told the Daily Bee in an email.

Hall questioned the decision to hold the meeting, saying it could result in unnecessary legal battles for a financially strapped district and lacked transparency with the meeting set for the Friday evening of a three-day weekend.

"The timing of this meeting is highly inappropriate," she added.

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(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

Sandy Brower gets a hug from fellow recall supporter after a controversial West Bonner County School District board meeting was forced to be canceled after a pair of voters filed a restraining order, contending it will irreparably harm the district.

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(Photo courtesy KYLIE HOEPFER)

West Bonner County School District residents erupt in cheers after an announcement that a controversial special meeting was canceled after a Bonner County judge approved a restraining order. The court order prohibits the school district from making any changes to the school board or authority granted to Superintendent Branden Durst until the recall results are official, which should be Thursday, Sept. 7 after the votes are canvassed by the county’s Board of Canvassers.