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Restraining order blocks West Bonner trustees from making major changes until after recall results are certified

The exterior of the West Bonner County School District office in Priest River.
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The exterior of the West Bonner County School District office in Priest River.

A judicial order issued Friday afternoon blocks the West Bonner School District’s board from making significant financial, organizational or contractual decisions until after the certification of this week’s recall election.

The temporary restraining order, signed by Magistrate Judge Lori Meulenberg, was issued at 3:52 p.m., a little more than an hour before the scheduled start of what was shaping up to be a significant meeting for the West Bonner district’s five-member board of trustees.

The agenda, released Thursday evening, included changes to Superintendent Branden Durst’s contract, possible legal action against the Idaho State Board of Education, and the dissolution of the board itself.

Proposed changes to Durst’s contract included provisions to secure salary and benefits even if the contract was terminated or found to be in violation of federal or state law. Another putative change would have allowed Durst to pursue outside work, such as speaking engagements or consulting, without getting the board’s approval.

The meeting was set to happen three days after voters removed board chair Keith Rutledge and vice chair Susan Brown from office. They remain on the board until the recall vote’s results are certified, which is scheduled to happen the morning of September 7.

The special meeting’s timing, and its large agenda, fueled concerns that Rutledge and Brown would try to make significant changes before their departure, especially for Durst, the Idaho Freedom Foundation analyst they hired in June to be West Bonner’s district superintendent. Trustee Troy Reinbold was the third vote to confirm Durst’s hiring, but he was not targeted in the recall election.

The group WBCSD Recall Replace Rebuild, which advocated for the removal of Rutledge and Brown in the recall vote, called the special meeting “a truly authoritarian move” in a tweet Thursday evening. Margaret Hall and Carlyn Barton, West Bonner trustees who are not in the three-person majority, called the timing of the meeting “highly inappropriate.”

In a statement Friday, Hall and Barton said they had no knowledge of the planned meeting until the agenda was emailed to them Thursday evening. They also expressed concern that the items on the agenda would get the board into “unnecessary legal battles.”

Muelenberg’s order said the evidence before the court indicated the meeting could inflict “immediate and irreparable harm” on the district, including dismantling the board of trustees, possible open meetings violations, action items that would be “for the sole benefit of an individual, recalled trustees and not the district,” and outcomes that “threaten to subvert the results of a lawful election.”

Earlier in the day, Idaho’s top elections official, Secretary of State Phil McGrane, said his office had fielded inquires about the recall election. He said, “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.”

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.