Mike McMahon will tell you that he really doesn’t know what he’s doing in his role as president of the West Bonner Education Association — perhaps a bit of dubious self-deprecation given what’s happening in his community and local.
But one thing he does know after this summer’s spectacular recall election of two extremist West Bonner School District board members is the value and power of an engaged, impassioned community coalition.
“This community has our back,” he said earlier this fall.
The success of that recall election positioned the school board to oust divisive superintendent Branden Durst last month and election WBEA-endorsed school board members on Nov. 7. Durst’s brief tenure as superintendent — he was previously a senior analyst at the anti-public education Idaho Freedom Foundation and has no educational experience — came after he selected for the job over Susan Luckey, the interim superintendent and a veteran educator in the district.
ANTI-PUBLIC EDUCATION AGENDA IN PRACTICE
The storm has been brewing for a while. Ever since a 2021 election gave extremists a majority on the school district’s five-person board, McMahon, a handful of WBEA members and allies in the community watched as the board seemingly worked to undo their beloved public schools.
The cancellation of established curriculum in favor of those with a religious foundation. Complaints about the district “wasting money” and ordering an external audit of its books, despite the State of Idaho’s annual audit showing no concerns. False claims that educators were indoctrinating students. School board members actively working against the district’s May levy election and refusing to put it back on the ballot after it failed, despite the desperate nature of district finances.
Keith Rutledge and Susan Brown, who were quickly selected as chair and vice chair of the school board, respectively, after their election to the board two years ago, were using their power to align the district’s public school system with their extremist political views. They allied themselves with existing board member Troy Reinbold to form a solid 3-2 extremist majority on the board.
“Once they were finally in charge, they began to push their agenda,” said McMahon, an elementary and junior high coach.
BRANDON DURST HIRED
McMahon was elected president of the WBEA this spring, just before things “really hit the fan” when the school board, after a 3-2 vote, hired Durst as the district’s superintendent over the summer.
McMahon and the small community group, who had begun meeting weekly to compare notes about the school board’s actions, were shocked — and they weren’t the only ones. McMahon said the complacency in the community that allowed Rutledge and Brown to be elected in the first place was gone.
“Pretty soon our meetings started getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So, we had to move our meetings to the local event center,” McMahon said.
Durst, Rutledge and Brown began creating chaos. They fired the district’s well-liked office staff and replaced them with inexperienced loyalists, gave Durst a lavish employment contract that had to be rolled back due to public outcry and used district resources to skirt state requirements that Durst become certified for his new role.
RECALL, REPLACE & REBUILD
With each questionable act, the community’s ire grew and ultimately morphed into an extraordinary campaign to “Recall, Replace & Rebuild” — or recall the election of Rutledge and Brown, replace them with board trustees aligned with community values and rebuild the district in the aftermath. The momentum was contagious and soon the recall election was the talk of the community. The area was plastered with the campaign’s signs, including every entry in the Labor Day parade.
The WBEA and Idaho Education Association played a key, but behind-the-scenes role in the campaign’s work. With many educators fearful of district reprisals for supporting the recall, the community members insisted that the union remain in the background. WBEA members did knock on doors and send text messages to voters, but as part of the larger campaign efforts. Instead, IEA staff and members worked as consultants and sounding boards for McMahon and the entire Recall, Replace & Rebuild campaign.
“Right from the get-go, the association was involved,” McMahon said. “But the community insisted on being out front on the campaign, because a lot of teachers were nervous about putting a target on their back.”
In August 29’s recall election, the community voted to unceremoniously oust Rutledge and Brown from their seats on the school board by nearly 2-to-1 margins. Voter turnout was nearly triple the 2021 election when they were first elected. Then on Nov. 7, the community elected WBEA-endorsed school board candidate Margaret Hall to the local school board.
“North Idaho has dealt with an influx of divisive politics over the past couple of years, but this shows that everyday folks don’t buy what the hysterical far-right ideologues are selling,” said Chris Parri, IEA’s political director. “West Bonner is a solidly conservative Idaho community that sticks up for itself against charlatans that want to use students as political bargaining chips for an out-of-state, extremist agenda.”
While the first of the campaign’s “3 Rs” is achieved, and the second, replacing ousted school board members, is underway, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
In the meantime, the depth of the chaos created by the extremist take-over of the district started coming to light after Rutledge and Brown were kicked off the board. McMahon heard from WBEA members bouncing or error-ridden paychecks, that the district’s payments to employees’ state retirement plans weren’t made over the summer and that at least one employee’s personnel file went missing completely.
Also, this year’s contract negotiations between WBEA and the district are still unresolved, in part because no members of district’s original negotiating team survived Durst’s purge of central office employees. In an impressive show of solidarity with the WBEA, community members filled the audience of contract negotiation meetings between the district and the union, McMahon said. One community member even broadcast the meetings on social media so those who couldn’t attend could watch.
‘IN A POSITION TO GROW’
Despite the turbulence, McMahon is optimistic. If the momentum and progress around Recall, Replace & Rebuild continues, he believes the uptick in engagement among WBEA members could prove a boon to membership numbers in the local union.
He may be right. Despite all that’s happened, including the exodus of around 30 district staff members since spring, WBEA membership numbers have grown some over last year.
“I think we are in a position to grow,” McMahon said. “It all starts with us as a local. But our community is here to back us up.”