UPDATED: Little calls NIC mess ‘unfortunate,’ but says state has limited oversight role

(UPDATED, 4:29 p.m. with statement from Gov. Brad Little.)

The ongoing dysfunction at North Idaho College is “unfortunate,” a spokeswoman for Gov. Brad Little said Wednesday.

But Little said he has limited say in the college’s operations — and decisions made by trustees elected in Kootenai County.

“It is unfortunate to see the college experiencing turmoil amid an ongoing investigation into its accreditation – which would significantly impact current NIC students, businesses, and the entire region if lost,” Little spokeswoman Madison Hardy said in a statement to Idaho Education News Wednesday afternoon. “North Idaho voters elect NIC’s board of trustees with the expectation that they will act with the institution’s best interest in mind and lead appropriately.”

The State Board of Education said it is monitoring the situation, but said it has limited jurisdiction — even though community colleges are funded through a combination of state tax dollars, local property taxes and student tuition and fees.

“By statute, Idaho community colleges are governed by locally elected boards of trustees, not the State Board of Education,” the board said in a statement to Idaho Education News Wednesday. “Although the State Board of Education has statutory authority to approve academic and career-technical education programs offered at NIC, it does not have authority over general governance of the college.”

NIC’s board of trustees has been in turmoil for two years, including the past 10 days. Trustees held three contentious meetings last week — hiring a political ally, former attorney general’s candidate Art Macomber, as the college’s lawyer; placing recently hired President Nick Swayne on administrative leave; and making an unsuccessful attempt to convince former wrestling coach and interim President Michael Sebaaly to return as acting president.

Trustees will next meet on Dec. 21, rescheduling a meeting originally planned for Thursday.

The State Board’s statement was drafted as a standard response to the roughly 20 emails the board has received about NIC, board spokesman Mike Keckler said Wednesday. Its hands-off tone is a bit of a departure from previous comments.

In December 2021, State Board President Kurt Liebich and executive director Matt Freeman sent a pointed letter to NIC trustees, admonishing them to “set aside parochial or partisan interests” and ensure NIC retains its accreditation. “While the State Board respects the local governance of community colleges, it also has a legal and moral interest in the health of the colleges,” they wrote at the time.

The State Board also filled three vacancies on NIC’s five-member board of trustees in May — under a section of state law that allows the board to fill multiple vacancies. The three appointees hired Swayne in June, over the objections of holdover trustees Todd Banducci and Greg McKenzie. None of the three appointees now serve on the board, where Banducci, McKenzie and newly elected Mike Waggoner now hold a majority. Still, hard feelings surround the appointment process; during a Dec. 5 trustees’ meeting, Banducci decried interference from unelected trustees “handpicked by the governor and his minions.”

The eight-member State Board is composed largely of gubernatorial appointees. 

The statements, in full

Gov. Brad Little: “Governor Little has long recognized North Idaho College’s immense value to the surrounding community. NIC is a leader in developing a skilled and reliable workforce that supports Idaho’s growing economy and connects Idahoans to meaningful careers. It is unfortunate to see the college experiencing turmoil amid an ongoing investigation into its accreditation – which would significantly impact current NIC students, businesses, and the entire region if lost. North Idaho voters elect NIC’s board of trustees with the expectation that they will act with the institution’s best interest in mind and lead appropriately. The State of Idaho is not involved in NIC’s operations outside what is statutorily required. Governor Little will continue looking for ways to support higher education opportunities and workforce development in North Idaho – furthering his goal of making Idaho a place where all can thrive and where our children and grandchildren choose to stay.”

State Board: “The Office of the State Board of Education has received numerous questions and comments about recent board of trustees’ meetings at North Idaho College (NIC). By statute, Idaho community colleges are governed by locally elected boards of trustees, not the State Board of Education. Although the State Board of Education has statutory authority to approve academic and career-technical education programs offered at NIC, it does not have authority over general governance of the college. Many comments sent to the State Board of Education have expressed concerns about NIC’s accreditation. State Board of Education Governing Policy III.M requires all public postsecondary institutions in Idaho to be accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), a federally recognized accrediting body that accredits most public and private postsecondary institutions in the northwest region of the United States, including all Idaho public colleges and universities. All accreditation determinations at all public postsecondary institutions in Idaho, including NIC, are made independently by NWCCU without input, influence, or oversight by the State Board of Education. Idaho public colleges and universities cannot accept the transfer of credits from an unaccredited institution. Students at unaccredited institutions are not eligible for federal financial aid.

“The State Board of Education recognizes concerns expressed by the community and will continue to closely monitor developments regarding NIC’s governance and accreditation, and any potential impacts to students, faculty and staff at the college.”

Debbie Critchfield: Through a spokesperson, state superintendent-elect Debbie Critchfield released a brief comment Wednesday afternoon. “Superintendent-elect Critchfield is aware of the matter at NIC and continues to stay apprised of the situation.”

When Critchfield is sworn in in January, she will again sit on the State Board.

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "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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