The board of the West Bonner County School District made a terrible decision Wednesday night. Given a choice between local longtime educator and principal Susie Luckey and serial political entrepreneur Branden Durst, the board went with the career politician.
Though Durst has degrees relevant to education, he has no comparable experience in the field. Luckey, who was named National Distinguished Principal for Idaho in 2018, had it in spades and had been running the district well as interim superintendent by all accounts.
It’s unclear what the trustees thought they could gain by overlooking the more qualified and level-headed candidate for a serial political entrepreneur.
Durst has always sought the spotlight. He’s gone from Democrat to far-right Republican, Idaho senator to Washington political hopeful to school board candidate to state superintendent candidate to political hatchetman — add now to that list school superintendent.
The unifying thread is overwhelming personal ambition. The causes change, but what’s been constant is Durst’s belief that he should be given the power to implement his ideas, whatever they are that week.
There has been a second constant as well: failure. Despite all his grasping, Durst has little record of accomplishment, apart perhaps from a few policies during his initial stint in the Idaho House. He resigned from the Idaho Senate after the media raised questions as to whether he was actually living in his district or in Washington. He lost his subsequent House race in Washington by a wide margin. He finished second-last in a wide field for Boise school board. He lost in his attempt to become Idaho’s state superintendent after switching parties.
It’s not too surprising that he loses so consistently.
Anyone who is familiar with his presence on social media knows that he is not a good role model for kids. He is consistently mean-spirited, insulting and sarcastic.
He has a history of exploding when things don’t go his way, as when he got in former Sen. Jim Woodward’s face and issued a string of threats after Woodward didn’t vote the way Durst wanted on his version of a parental rights bill last year. Durst earned the unanimous condemnation of the Senate’s GOP leadership over that stunt.
Durst also has a long history of questionable personal conduct that should have disqualified him from serious consideration. He has at different times been subject to protective orders that prevented him from contacting his own children, as Idaho Public Television first reported, and to domestic violence protective orders.
To say the least, these are not the things you usually look for in a candidate to lead a school district. But that was the direction three of the five board members decided to go.
“At this point, I think that change needs to happen. And I think Branden is the guy to do that,” said chairman Keith Rutledge, according to the Bonner County Daily Bee.
What changes are in store? There aren’t many clear indications, but what there is isn’t good.
According to the Bee, one idea Durst floated is having students take the Idaho Standards Achievement Test on a monthly basis. If implemented, this would provide highly time-sensitive data showing exactly how little it is possible for kids to learn when all of their time is spent taking tests.
And on the morning after he was selected, he tweeted approvingly about Oklahoma’s decision to create a taxpayer-funded school with an explicitly religious curriculum.
The board of trustees has voted to make the children of West Bonner County School District the subjects of an experiment: What happens when you give a man who has been seeking power for two decades his own little realm?
Durst’s kingdom will be small, but he will have more power over that small group of kids than he has held in any other position.
It will not be to their benefit.
Bryan Clark is an opinion writer for the Idaho Statesman based in eastern Idaho.