A polarizing presence, at the center of NIC’s dysfunction

Todd Banducci ran unopposed in November 2020, garnering more than 62,000 votes and securing a third term on North Idaho College’s board of trustees.

Since then, the chairman of NIC’s board has been the polarizing presence at the core of NIC’s dysfunction.

Banducci led the push to fire President Rick MacLennan and promote NIC wrestling coach Michael Sebaaly as interim president. The college has lost many top administrators, and its accreditation is in limbo. Meanwhile, Banducci has presided over a deadlocked board, rife with turnover. A Banducci ally, Michael Barnes, resigned in January over residency questions. Last week, the four remaining trustees failed to agree on a successor, and longtime trustees Christie Wood and Ken Howard announced their resignations effective May 3, leaving Banducci and another ally, Greg McKenzie, as the college’s sole elected trustees.

Long before last week’s meeting meltdown, NIC’s Faculty Assembly and Staff Assembly have issued statements of no confidence in the board, with teachers calling on Banducci to step down as chair.

As NIC has struggled to maintain its accreditation, Banducci has railed about a liberal “deep state” at the Coeur d’Alene-based community college, while seeking to exert his will over day-to-day college operations, right down to grading.

Banducci didn’t respond to requests for comment. But several emails to and from Banducci — dating back from his first days as NIC board chair, and since posted publicly on NIC’s website — foreshadowed the controversy that now besets the college.

On Jan. 12, 2021, Banducci wrote back to a student who had complained of being harshly graded and censored in a 2019 class. “Hopefully, there will be an opportunity at some point for me to wade into your endeavor and help extract some amount of justice and closure for you,” Banducci wrote. “It’d even be better if we could also get that poor grade adjusted up.”

Banducci didn’t confine his comments to the student’s concerns. “I’m battling the NIC ‘deep state’ on an almost daily basis. … We are registering victories and will register more wins, but it takes time.”

In a June 2021 report to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, or NWCCU, the region’s accrediting body, college officials conceded a possible problem. “Given the political nature of the board election and the content of Chair Banducci’s email communications, there is reason to perceive that academic freedom is vulnerable to inappropriate pressure.”

On Jan. 15, 2021, Banducci fired off a series of emails to then-President Rick MacLennan, requesting an 18-month accounting of MacLennan’s expenses, a clarification on how MacLennan will report future paid leave, and a weekly or biweekly summary of MacLennan’s activities representing NIC. “I subscribe to the mantra: more communication the better.”

In a separate email, Banducci also notes that a student omitted the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance at the 2020 graduation. “I expect that this institution will work hard to see that should never happen again.”

In June 2021, college administrators acknowledged a separation of roles — elected trustees set policy, while administrators handle day-to-day operations — while stopping short of singling out Banducci. “Individual members of the board have attempted to insert themselves into college operations, by giving directives to the president,” the college said in a written response to NWCCU.

On Jan. 18, 2021, MacLennan described a post-election conversation with Banducci. In an email to trustees, MacLennan said Banducci expected the two to speak frequently — so MacLennan could receive “marching orders.” MacLennan pushed back — respectfully, as he described it.

“(Banducci) responded by saying, ‘That’s right, the board has only one employee — I guess we can go down that road.’ I understood this to mean that he would seek to terminate my employment if I did not cooperate with him.”

In September, the board fired MacLennan without cause, on a 3-2 vote, with Banducci, McKenzie and Barnes voting for the ouster.

Also on Jan. 18, 2021, trustee Christie Wood emailed fellow board members, calling on Banducci to resign. Her email recounted a 2012 confrontation with Banducci.

“He became upset at my input into a college matter. He stood up from me, pointed his finger directly at me and said, ‘I ought to take you outside right now and kick your ass,’” Wood wrote.

Banducci did not resign. But after months of public infighting, Wood and fellow trustee Ken Howard are resigning, effective May 3. That will leave the five-person board with only two trustees, Banducci and an ally, Greg McKenzie. The State Board of Education will fill the three vacancies.

The tension was evident before the election — at least behind the scenes. In April 2020, trustees sent Banducci a private letter of censure, over actions “perceived to be threatening, intimidating and/or rude.” Wood and Howard were two of the four co-signers.

The letter did not become public before the November 2020 election.

A U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, former high school basketball and wrestling coach, and the president of a Coeur d’Alene insurance and investments company, Banducci has his defenders:

  • Amidst the firestorm in early 2021, Coeur d’Alene pastor Stuart Bryan emailed trustees, saying he too was troubled by the “leftist tilt” of NIC instruction. “I am thankful that Mr. Banducci is endeavoring to shape the vision of NIC to better reflect eternal truths rather than contemporary fads, truths that have formed the foundation of our Republic and of the great State of Idaho.”
  • Days after Wood called for Banducci’s resignation, McKenzie publicly commended Banducci for digging into college finances — and criticized Wood, a longtime trustee. “In the brief time I’ve been on the board and continue to learn about board governance and responsibilities of the board, my opinion is that previous boards at NIC have not actively engaged deeply in ‘doing a thorough job,'” McKenzie wrote on his Facebook page.
  • In March — in its latest report to NWCCU, filed six months after MacLennan’s ouster — college administrators this time came to Banducci’s defense. The college says the biggest problem with the Jan. 12, 2021 “deep state” memo was that administrators had made it public. “(Banducci) used his personal email address to respond to this student and not his official NIC email address. He challenged the administration for releasing his personal emails as part of a public records request because he felt they were personal.”

Banducci, a Kootenai County Republican Central Committee member, enjoys support from the Panhandle’s predominant political party. During his unopposed re-election bid, Banducci received donations from Brent Regan, the county’s GOP chairman, and board chairman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation; GOP attorney general’s candidate Art Macomber; retiring Republican state Sen. Steve Vick; and former state Rep. Eric Redman.

Banducci has held sway over local Republicans, says Wood, by overstating the role trustees can take in dictating college operations, and by spinning the entire debate as one pitting conservatives against liberals.

“How is the local Republican Party buying into this conservative vs. liberal nonsense, when it is truly a behavioral problem?” she asked. “But they are.”

More reading: Elections have consequences, and NIC is facing them.

Listen: Kevin Richert discusses the North Idaho College story with “Idaho Reports” podcast host Logan Finney.

 

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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