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Embattled trustees say recall about politics, not kids

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Hagadone News Network | July 15, 2023 1:08 AM

PRIEST RIVER — An upcoming recall is a partisan attempt to oust conservative politicians from office, according to a pair of West Bonner County School District board trustees.

The comments are part of written rebuttals submitted to the county clerk's office by West Bonner County school board Chair Keith Rutledge and vice Chair Susan Brown as they prepare for an Aug. 29 recall election.

Residents in western Bonner County launched the recall drive in mid-June, following increasingly contentious board meetings after the board mulled selling Priest River Middle School and Branden Durst, a former policy analyst with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, was announced as a superintendent finalist.

Residents who filed to recall the pair said those decisions show Rutledge and Brown are out of touch with the community, its values and its wishes. A decision to hire the former analyst with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative political think tank, over longtime educator Susie Luckey, who was named interim superintendent after Jackie Branum stepped down from the post without notice, was the final straw.

That, they said, showed Rutledge and Brown are placing their political agenda over the needs of the district's students, staff or schools at the forefront. The recall petitioners garnered significantly more signatures than the minimum needed to place the measure on the ballot.

Rutledge and Brown said they have worked tirelessly since being elected in 2021 to right the troubled school district, beset by low test scores and financial troubles. The recall is a reaction of those ideologically opposed to conservative principles, Brown and Rutledge said in their prepared statements.

"I led the investigation into the Wonders K-12 curriculum recommended by Susie Luckey which was riddled with [critical race theory] derived teaching methods and was 20% over budget," Brown said in a prepared statement. "When we found out that the [social and emotional learning] being pushed by the recall organizers was a backdoor through Idaho law to promote CRT and LGBTQ+/- agendas, I led the effort to send it right back to its publishers."

The two trustees called on voters to reject the recall, pledging to continue their fight for financial transparency, to keep the school district free of "woke agendas" and keep up their demand for educational outcomes better than 60% competency.

"Voting for my recall will hand control of our district back over to the very same people that are responsible for 60% reading competency rates and call that a success," Rutledge said.

The board chair said recall organizers want to keep the results of a pending forensic audit secret.

"They want to keep you and the whole country from seeing how a conservative-led school district can improve poor educational outcomes and give our children a better chance at actual success," Rutledge said in his prepared statement. "They want to continue with failed tax and spend policies."

A vote for the recall keeps the status quo while a vote against the recall supports financial accountability, a superintendent who demands better than average and rejects CRT in district classrooms, Rutledge said in the statement.

Brown said she has fought for financial transparency, something that previous administrators consistently attempted to block.

"I pushed for the common sense plan to do a forensic audit before any more levies so that you can know how your tax dollars are actually being spent," she said.

Rutledge and Brown claim the recall is being led by a small group aligned with local Democrats and Idaho Moms, which notes on its website that it is apolitical and instead advocates for libraries, schools and public lands as well as programs that support women and children.

"We have a policy that we leave political party nonsense at the door and focus on the issues that affect us," the group wrote on the site. "We focus on our values and the mission of Idaho Moms."

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