COEUR d'ALENE - After two hours of interviewing and an hour of discussion, all in front of a crowd of more than 100, the Kootenai County commissioners voted unanimously on Thursday evening to select James Purtee to fill the Zone 1 trustee seat on the Coeur d'Alene School District board.
Emphasizing that any of the six applicants for the vacant seat were well qualified and could have served the district well, the commissioners noted that Purtee, owner of Jimmy's Down the Street restaurant in Coeur d'Alene, has shown repeated interest in seeking a board position and will bring decades of financial experience to the five-member board.
"Purtee stood for election and came very close," said Commissioner Todd Tondee before the vote, a reference to Purtee losing by seven votes when he ran for a trustee position three years ago.
He also noted Purtee's promise to weigh opinions from all sides before making decisions on hot topics, including the continuation of International Baccalaureate programs.
"I like the idea you come in with an open mind to study and evaluate the programs," Tondee said.
Commissioner Dan Green emphasized the importance of financial background, which Purtee boasts after more than 40 years in the restaurant and marketing industries.
"School is big business, it's not just curriculum," Green said before the vote in the county administration building.
Commissioner Jai Nelson praised Purtee's outsider perspective as an individual without past involvement in the district and who hasn't had any children attend district schools.
"I think the outside vantage of what's worked, what hasn't worked can be good," Nelson said.
Purtee, who shook the hands of all the commissioners and the other trustees after the vote, said he was thrilled by the decision.
"I do not go into the position with an agenda. I can't tell you what I want to do and what I don't want to do," the Zone 1 resident said, adding that he will engage in dialogue with the other trustees while keeping an "open mind" and a "commitment to education."
The decision had been a long time coming.
The school district board's prior appointment of Wanda Quinn to the Zone 1 seat had been nullified by a district court judge, when it was discovered the voting process had not followed legal procedure.
Unprecedented to all of the officials' best knowledge, the commissioners were then tasked with filling the seat under state law, because the position had been vacant more than 120 days.
The process itself was new for all involved. The commissioners conducted the interviews with the four current trustees, and the officials posed questions to the six applicants who sat and answered together in a panel format.
The other candidates included Quinn, program development specialist for the University of Idaho, attorney Duncan Koler, stay-at-home mom Christa Hazel, Realtor Luke Sommer and Casey Morrisroe, owner of Specialty Recreation and Marine.
Topics discussed included opinions on charter school vouchers, attracting qualified teachers, the IB program and the Students Come First legislation.
Afterward, with the applicants still seated before them, the commissioners asked for the trustees' input and then narrowed down the top candidates.
"I appreciated the civility of it," said district Trustee Tom Hamilton afterward. "And I appreciate living in a community where something like this comes up and so many want to step up. I would've been disappointed if there had only been one or none (to choose from)."
Purtee had been among Hamilton's top three choices, and he respected the commissioners' decision.
"The reasons they stated for Mr. Purtee's selection are sound," Hamilton said.
Trustee Terri Seymour also favored appointing Purtee.
"Every applicant did a great job," Seymour said. "I know it was very hard for the commissioners. It was hard for all of us."
Hamilton said the trustees will confer with legal advisers, but he expected Purtee would be sworn in at the next district board meeting on May 7.
He reminded that the Zone 1 term will be up in 2013.
"The voters will have a say in it next May," Hamilton said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original story erroneously stated that Terri Seymour had defeated Jim Purtee in a prior election.