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Durst's selection draws mixed reaction

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Hagadone News Network | June 9, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — The selection of Branden Durst as the new West Bonner County School District superintendent is drawing mixed reactions — at best.

Some applauded the move, saying change is vital to improve the schools and rebuild trust between the community and the district. Others criticized the move, calling it an inherently political vote that makes pawns of the community's children.

"West Bonner County School District #83 selected … Branden Durst to be their next superintendent," District 1 Idaho State Sen. Scott Herndon posted on Twitter shortly after the vote. "I think the community will find Branden very intelligent and thoughtful."

Others said Durst was frank in his assessment of the district's troubles and that an outside view was necessary to move forward.

"Change is finally happening in the West Bonner County School District," Faith Brenneman wrote in a letter to the editor. "While this reality may be a bit scary to some, it’s long overdue and we owe it to the children of the district."

Others on social media saw the vote starkly differently, saying the vote will hurt their community and their children.

"Unreal," Leah Penn posted. "He has zero qualifications to lead a school district. A school district that NEEDS leadership now more than ever. This is such a blow for the citizens of West Bonner County. The board should be ashamed of themselves."

The post prompted a response from Durst, who told her he was open to meeting with those who did not support his hiring to discuss their concerns and "dispel the many rumors and falsities" that have been spread about him.

"I want WBCSD to be successful," he posted.

At least one letter sent to Durst and WBCSD officials called on him to remove himself as superintendent. He lacks the qualifications to run a school district and understanding of the community, Holly Jepson wrote.

"Other teachers and staff are why our kids continue at West Bonner County School District 83. Our kids have had some of the most caring, outstanding staff, in our country," Jepson said in her letter. "Irreplaceable teachers and coaches. Our school district is needing improvements, from everything I've read and found, you sir are not what our children need."

Among those questioning Durst's selection is Jim Woodward, who served in the Idaho Senate representing District 1 before Herndon's election.

Woodward said a previous interaction with Durst during his time in the Senate ended with the Idaho State Police stepping between the two to de-escalate a tense exchange.

Durst, who was running for the GOP nomination for Idaho Secretary of State, approached Woodward after the Bonner County Republican broke a tie vote on a parental rights bill.

Woodward said Durst approached him after the January 2022 vote, told him it was a bad decision and, using profanity, said he would be using it against him in the upcoming election. Woodward said he leaned into Durst and asked if he was threatening him.

At that point, Idaho State Police stepped between the pair and the exchange calmed down.

In reporting by the Idaho Education News, Durst later said he had gone to the room to apologize. However, Woodward said Durst continued the exchange and again threatened political retaliation. Idaho State Police again had to step in to de-escalate the matter.

Durst's actions were later condemned by the Idaho Senate GOP, saying it was clear he had "acted inappropriately."

"I think is that he's an emotional person," Woodward said Thursday. "He couldn't control himself in the Senate committee room. How would you do any better in a school setting? He can't control himself and I think the real takeaway here is not only that he has a history of different problems in interacting with people. But he also is not qualified for … being a superintendent of a school district."

Woodward said, having grown up in the area, he knows how much the Priest River and Priest Lake areas care about their children and their schools.

"I think his intentions are politically motivated and not working in the best interest of the children," he added.

Durst told the Daily Bee that those unhappy with his selection are entitled to their opinions. He is just thankful the board "saw through the smear campaign and did what was best for the district, even if it wasn't popular with some community members."

His focus is not on his critics, he said, but on the district's students.

"I am laser focused on improving student achievement and getting the district off probation," Durst said.