How a new Idaho superintendent is tapping far-right connections to refashion a school district
Teachers flee the small district, fearing the impact of a right-wing politician’s appointment
West Bonner County School District superintendent Branden Durst ran for state superintendent in 2022 on a platform that included banning the teaching of any “racially divisive theories,” but lost in the GOP primary. (Courtesy of IdahoEdNews.org)
Branden Durst believes he was chosen for a purpose.
Last month, he was appointed superintendent of the West Bonner School District, encompassing a little more than a thousand students at the tip of the Idaho panhandle.
But picking Durst meant the divided school board passed over its interim superintendent — a nearly 40-year veteran of the district — for a controversial politician with little K-12 education experience. It meant they looked beyond the time Durst was accused of encouraging his wife to beat his son and also the time the entire Idaho GOP Senate leadership condemned his “egregious behavior” confronting a state legislator.
It meant, Durst told InvestigateWest in a lengthy interview last week, that they wanted someone who would bring change.
“If the board had wanted to maintain the status quo, they would have hired someone else,” Durst said.
Durst, an analyst for the right-wing Idaho Freedom Foundation with a degree in executive educational leadership, wants this district to more closely reflect the values of the parents in the “very, very conservative community.”
In his first month, Durst has replaced three district employees with his own temporary picks, hinting at what those changes might look like. That includes replacing the district’s business manager with Melissa Reilly, wife of Dave Reilly, one of North Idaho’s most infamous figures on the alt-right, a trollish network of internet savvy racist and antisemitic groups that arose during the Trump era. In 2017, Dave Reilly attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, sporting a pin with the logo of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.
Durst’s appointment represents an opportunity for Idaho’s more hardline conservatives to show what they’re capable of when they’re in charge.
But as a new wave of right-wing activists across Idaho has solidified control of institutions like North Idaho College, local library boards and school districts, observers like moderate Idaho Republican political consultant Christa Hazel worry that these efforts are being used by Reilly and his allies as a “Trojan horse” to gain more mainstream influence.
“I truly believe that the America First Movement views Idaho — especially North Idaho — as a battleground state,” Hazel said. “I believe we’re a beachhead for the movement.”
‘A different network’
There’s almost always a “who-you-know” aspect to hiring, Durst said. It’s just that he knows different people.
“I have a different network that’s never been accessed by this district before,” Durst said.
Durst said that the three employees he replaced weren’t technically fired — their contracts ended on June 30.
Everything he did, he insisted, was in his power as superintendent. In an emergency — and he’s the one who gets to decide whether there’s an emergency — he said he can temporarily appoint anybody he wants.
Nobody’s complaining about Durst’s pick for the new head of human resources, an experienced district staffer. But for the board clerk position, he picked Brandy Paradee, a leader with “Stop Idaho RINOs,” a group dedicated to rooting out the “Republicans in Name Only” who, its members believe, have infested Idaho politics. Paradee, like Durst, is a staunch supporter of “school choice” legislation that some teachers worry would further drain public schools of funding.
“Why would we not be suspicious of these people who have been so adamantly anti-public education for the past year?” said Whitney Urmann, who taught second grade last year at Priest Lake Elementary School in West Bonner and has led much of the opposition to Durst.
But while Paradee isn’t expected to apply for the permanent job, Melissa Reilly is.
“She’s offered to help because she wants to make sure that I’m successful,” Durst said.
Durst said that Melissa Reilly’s resume is “impeccable.” According to LinkedIn, she has over seven years of professional accounting experience, including a year-and-a-half stint as a financial analyst for the University of Notre Dame.
Even a critic like Urmann readily acknowledged that, on paper, Melissa Reilly clearly seems qualified.
“When you hire someone so closely related to someone who has been in the news so much for so many horrible things, it’s really hard to not be paranoid,” said Urmann.
Durst argues that Melissa Reilly’s husband is irrelevant to his pick.
“She’s her own person. She gets to think for herself,” Durst said. “But a bunch of people who claim to be feminists are saying that a woman shouldn’t be provided an opportunity because of who their husband is. And that seems so antithetical to the feminist cause it’s ridiculous.”
Yet it’s not clear how different the Reillys’ beliefs are from each other’s. Neither responded to an interview request.
After losing his Pennsylvania radio host job in the wake of Charlottesville, Dave Reilly became an outspoken “groyper,” an acolyte of Nick Fuentes, the white nationalist who said race-mixing was “degenerate” and frets about white birth rates.
Before his wedding in 2020, Dave Reilly bragged on Twitter that his soon-to-be-wife had got his groomsmen “custom Groyper socks” — adding that he could not wait to “get her knocked up, and try to pump up those dropping European-American fertility statistics.”
And before Reilly delivered a 2021 “Stop the Steal” speech in Coeur d’Alene — during which he declared that “our country has been taken over by liars, traitors, banksters, international financial capital, foreign lobbies, closeted homosexuals and pedophiles” — he tweeted that his wife had helped him put the “finishing touches” on the speech.
Durst, however, said he knows Dave Reilly better than most people and doesn’t actually have any problem with him.
“You may not like somebody, I don’t care,” Durst said. “If they’re friendly to me, if they don’t do things that I find morally repugnant that I’m aware of, I’m not going to hold that against them.”
Reilly has objected to those who call him a white nationalist or an “antisemite.” But an archive of more than 5,000 deleted tweets that Dave Reilly wrote between 2019 and 2021, reviewed by InvestigateWest, make it clear that Reilly made contempt toward Jewish people a defining part of his worldview.
He has declared repeatedly, for instance, that “Jews invented terrorism,” “control the media” and “were and continue to be the enemy of Christ.” But plenty of offensive rhetoric has been reported about Reilly before, and Durst has remained supportive.
“Certainly he said things that I think he regrets saying and probably don’t reflect his real perspective on things,” Durst said. “Some people are provocateurs.”
‘To be so brazen’
In one sense, a tooth-and-nails ideological fight to control the school system isn’t new in North Idaho: Hazel, the moderate political consultant, successfully beat a libertarian-leaning appointed incumbent to win a seat on the Coeur d’Alene school board.
But this fight today in districts like West Bonner is different, she said.
She sees a wave of alt-right media figures flooding into North Idaho — like Vincent James Foxx, a Reilly-allied video streamer who tried to take over the Idaho Young Republicans — and she believes it’s part of a larger scheme.
“They share the same goal,” Hazel said. “They have the same strategy. They share the same rhetoric.”
She said she sees “the exact same people who run in the exact same circle” showing up at the battle over North Idaho College, where she accuses the trustees of having put the institution’s accreditation in jeopardy.
Education has long been a focus of the far right. Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, an extremism research organization, said that as the pandemic refocused attention on schools, some white nationalists in North Idaho have seen it as an opportunity to more openly influence politics.
“Their willingness to be so brazen is not something we’ve seen before,” he said.
Yet while Dave Reilly’s own run for school board in Post Falls failed, his influence didn’t necessarily wane. Last year, the evidence suggests he helped make ads for the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. The post office box of “Idaho Dynamics,” the company that churned out the ads, matches the one that Dave Reilly used as his campaign address and that Melissa Reilly listed on her donation to the local party.
Campaign records also show that Melissa Reilly provided nearly $1,000 in in-kind support for Durst during Durst’s failed 2022 campaign for state superintendent of public instruction.
“She hosted a couple of events for me and allowed me to stay at her house once,” Durst said.
In 2021, Durst was the only candidate to receive $900 worth of in-kind video advertisement from “Red Shield Media,” an ad company run by a close ally of Dave Reilly, Matthew Colligan. Colligan, a Charlottesville marcher, was best known for the catchphrase “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
Durst claims he had no idea who the group was. He said the video and the invoice for an in-kind expenditure just showed up out of the blue.
“A lot of these people want to stay anonymous,” Durst said.
What comes next
Durst said the hiring process to choose who permanently gets the roles in his office is already underway, and that he won’t be involved with interviewing candidates. Melissa Reilly, he said, is planning to apply for the permanent job.
By now, Durst has practice weathering criticism.
With little more than a month on the job, he’s already been targeted by jeers and insults from audience members at marathon school board meetings. Recall efforts have been launched against two of the trustees who’d supported him for the position. On Facebook, someone fantasized that he’d “love to storm the school board and knock his f—in teeth out.”
But Durst said he’s sought to listen to the concerns of his skeptics and has attempted to calm the waters.
“Of course, there’s people that are upset that Melissa Reilly got hired,” Durst said. “Those are the same people that are already upset anyway.”
Some, for example, were angry about the failure of the district’s $4.7 million levy in May, forcing cuts to sports and extracurriculars. Durst is glad the levy failed, not to “starve” the district, he said, but because he thinks more money would just paper over deeper systemic problems.
In recent months, 33 employees have left the district, Urmann said, in part because of the levy failure, and in part because of the controversy around Durst. Urmann, the former Priest Lake Elementary School teacher, is one of them.
There may be an “exodus of teachers that don’t want to work with me,” Durst said, but he’s hearing from a surge of qualified applicants who he said wouldn’t have considered the district before he started.
Yet the more teachers who leave in frustration, the more Durst is able to reshape the district. He’s already been calling for applicants.
“Do you have a real heart for the West Bonner/North Idaho community?” Durst wrote this month on Twitter. “Do you see society heading in the wrong direction and want to make a difference?”
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. A Report for America corps member, Daniel Walters covers democracy and extremism across the region. He can be reached at [email protected].
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