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Eleventh-hour West Bonner trustees special meeting cancelled

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 special meeting of the West Bonner School District’s five-member board of trustees was cancelled Wednesday evening.

Trustees were poised to meet one last time before two of its members are officially removed from office. The board provided no specific reason for the meeting’s cancellation.

Board Chair Keith Rutledge and Vice Chair Susan Brown were voted out of office by decisive margins in a recall election August 29. Three days later, on a Friday evening before the Labor Day weekend, they attempted to convene in order to change West Bonner Superintendent Branden Durst’s employment contract. That meeting was halted by a temporary restraining order about an hour before the session was set to begin.

The order, signed by Magistrate Judge Lori Meulenberg, barred the trustees from making substantial financial, organizational or contractual changes until after the results of the recall election are certified. Bonner County’s canvassing board is set to do that Thursday morning.

Meulenberg wrote that the trustees’ actions, if carried out, would unduly benefit Durst, Rutledge and Brown, potentially inflict “immediate and irreparable harm” on the school district, and “threaten to subvert the results of a lawful election.”

But Tuesday evening the board announced a special meeting, to take place at 6:00 p.m. Wednesday – about 16 hours before Rutledge’s and Brown’s terms were to end. The meeting agenda included an executive session to discuss evaluations of Durst and Brandy Paradee, the board’s clerk. Paradee was hired after Durst took office this summer.

The agenda also included action items that sought to “reaffirm board actions” from meetings in June and in August. Agendas and available minutes from those meetings indicate the actions to be “reaffirmed” applied to Durst’s employment.

Attorney Katie Elsaesser, who filed the restraining order request last Friday, warned the board in an email that the special meeting would likely have violated Idaho open meetings laws and Meulenberg’s order.

“You are not only violating a court order but your actions will be null and void as you have been restrained by the court from any action that financially commits the district or contractually obligates the district,” she wrote.

Elsaesser also wrote that the items listed on the agenda appear to “only benefit Mr. Durst and Ms. Paradee,” which she characterized as a breach of the board’s fiduciary duty.

Trustee Margaret Hall, who is not part of the school board’s majority trio, said in a letter Wednesday that she would not attend the meeting. She echoed Elsaesser’s concerns about violating open meetings law and the court order. She also questioned the propriety of holding evaluations for Durst and Paradee at this point in the year.

“We are only on our second day of school,” Hall wrote in the letter, addressed to Rutledge and Durst. “Any reason for holding such evaluations appears to be for the sake of being able to check the box that an ‘evaluation’ is done and a contract may be renewed.”

The recall election’s results will be certified at 10:00 a.m. Thursday. After that, the three remaining West Bonner trustees – Hall, Carlyn Barton and Troy Reinbold – have 90 days to select appointees to fill the remainder of Rutledge and Brown’s terms, which are set to end in January 2026. The appointees must be drawn from the school district zones Rutledge and Brown represented. If the three trustees cannot agree on a candidate, they can select one from anywhere within the district.

Hall, Barton and Reinbold’s seats are up for election in November as part of the regular cycle. The deadline for challengers to file is 5:00 p.m. September 8.

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.