Supreme Court throws a wrench into U of I’s timetable

An Idaho Supreme Court appeal could pose another big roadblock to the proposed University of Phoenix purchase.

On Friday, the court said it will hear oral arguments in June, as it takes up Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s open meetings lawsuit against the State Board of Education.

This timing is significant, because the $685 million Phoenix purchase faces a non-binding May 31 deadline. If the deal isn’t closed by then, the University of Idaho or Phoenix could walk away from their polarizing plan to affiliate.

“The timeline for oral arguments is not what we had hoped for, but this remains a very fluid situation and we will continue to work toward resolution,” the State Board said Monday, in a statement released through spokesman Mike Keckler.

In a statement Monday, Labrador’s office hailed Friday’s action: “We are pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the (State) Board’s attempt to rush this deal through the appellate process and is instead giving the case the close scrutiny it deserves.”

In recent days, U of I and State Board officials have sent mixed signals on the Phoenix deadline:

  • In a Feb. 20 legal statement, U of I general counsel Kent Nelson urged the Supreme Court to expedite Labrador’s appeal. The U of I-aligned nonprofit Four Three Education cannot begin selling Phoenix bonds while Labrador’s lawsuit remains under appeal — and Nelson said the bond sale must begin by May 1 in order to meet the deadline. “Significant efforts by university employees and agents will have been lost if the appeal process is not completed in time for the transaction to proceed.”
  • But on Wednesday, U of I President C. Scott Green had a decidedly different message for the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. While the two universities hope to go into the bond market in May, he said both parties are committed to seeing the purchase through. “We’ve got time.”
  • On Thursday — speaking on a legislative resolution that could authorize a second Phoenix lawsuit — State Board member Kurt Liebich said a legal challenge could put the purchase at “grave risk” by delaying financing. “It would be very difficult for us to place bonds with that legal threat out there,” he told the House State Affairs Committee. A day later, the committee unanimously passed the resolution.

The U of I and Phoenix did not respond Monday morning to requests for comment on the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The court’s timetable means Labrador’s open meetings lawsuit will likely remain in play for at least a full year. Labrador filed the suit in June 2023, saying the State Board broke Idaho law by discussing the Phoenix purchase in a series of closed meetings.

Ada County District Judge Jason Scott sided with the State Board, dismissing Labrador’s lawsuit.

More reading: Our in-depth, exclusive coverage of the Phoenix proposal.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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