‘North Idaho College is in trouble, and that’s why we’re all here:’ Applicants interview for board vacancies

State Board of Education officials interview Brad Corkill, left, one of eight applicants for three North Idaho College trustee vacancies.

Applicants for unpaid — and possibly short-term — North Idaho College board positions talked about the need to get the troubled two-year school back on track.

Several talked about the need to hire a new president quickly — naming a successor to Michael Sebaaly, the wrestling coach-turned-interim president who has been on the job since October.

And a couple of applicants talked about a need for changes on the board, saying controversial Chairman Todd Banducci needs to step aside from that leadership role.

State Board of Education officers spent close to four hours Thursday interviewing eight NIC trustee applicants. The group didn’t make any recommendations Thursday. They will offer those recommendations Friday afternoon, before the full eight-member State Board votes to name three new trustees.

The State Board has been thrust into the role of interviewing and appointing trustees, due to a spate of trustee resignations. Three of the board’s five trustees have resigned since January, leaving only Banducci and trustee Greg McKenzie in office. Without an operating quorum, the NIC board cannot conduct any business to govern the college.

Idaho law gives the State Board the authority to fill multiple vacancies on a community college board. That’s why President Kurt Liebich, Vice President Linda Clark and Secretary David Hill were conducting interviews at the Coeur d’Alene campus — albeit reluctantly.

“None of us particularly wanted to be here,” said Liebich at the outset of Thursday’s interviews. “We’re not here to usurp local control and autonomy on this board.”

NIC’s role

Applicants called NIC a social engine, a community center, an education “workhorse” and a bridge from high school to four-year college or a career. Community colleges such an NIC represent a high education “backbone” that employers value, said Pete Broschet, one of the applicants.

For Brad Patzer, a Post Falls native and career educator, NIC means something even more personal. “I’m an alumni,” he said. “It’s home to me.”

Others stressed the importance of having NIC serve employers in a tight labor market.

“I have to have accredited students coming out of NIC that are scrub techs, that are nurses,” said Rachel Wickham, a registered nurse applying for a board spot.

Brad Corkill, the owner of a Panhandle timber company, stressed the importance of serving students who want to earn affordable credits while they figure out their next moves. “(But) it’s important that those prerequisites are transferrable.”

However, that is one of the nagging questions facing NIC.

The NIC board’s next steps

Last month, regional accreditors gave NIC a stern warning: the college’s standing is in jeopardy, unless the college can address an exodus of key leaders and dysfunction on its board of trustees. If NIC loses accreditation, students might not be able to transfer credits to another school, or apply for state scholarships.

The cloud over accreditation also threatens enrollment and charitable giving at NIC.

The moment wasn’t lost on applicants.

“North Idaho College is in trouble, and that’s why we’re all here,” retired public school superintendent Paul Sturm said at the outset of his interview.

Applicants stressed several steps to address the college’s dysfunction — and public confidence.

While several applicants stressed the need to keep the presidential hiring process moving, retired University of Idaho administrator Hal Godwin also said the board needed to revisit the process that landed Sebaaly on the job. While stopping short of directly criticizing Sebaaly, he wondered if the board had bypassed more qualified candidates in hiring Sebaaly to replace ousted President Rick MacLennan.

David Wold talked more broadly about the need for the board to win back the college staff and the community. The retired ophthalmologist and current NIC Foundation board member said the accreditation questions are already affecting the foundation’s work. “We need to rebuild confidence in the board.”

And while Wickham talked generally about “decreasing the drama” on the board, applicants like John Goedde were more pointed. Goedde, a former Senate Education Committee chairman, noted that NIC’s faculty assembly has already called on Banducci to step aside as chair.

“I think that’s something that’s going to have to happen for us to move forward,” Goedde said.

Temporary trustees?

The eight finalists, selected from a field of 37 applicants, are vying for six-month terms on the board. The appointees can run for re-election in November.

Several flatly ruled out the idea of running.

“I was generally happy being retired, said Godwin. “But it’s public service … and there’s a need.”

“I have no intention of running,” said Goedde, who described the short-term appointments as a “strategic move” to address accreditors’ needs and the concerns of students and donors.

Patzer and Sturm said they would consider running in the fall, and Broschet said he was leaning in that direction. Corkill, a former member of the state’s charter school commission and Fish and Game Commission, made no secret of his plans. He said he would run for election if appointed, and made a strong push for an appointment.

“I want this job,” he said. “I think it’s important.”

What’s next?

Corkill and the other applicants won’t have to wait long for word.

The full State Board will meet at 1 p.m. Pacific time Friday. Liebich, Clark and Hill will make their recommendations at the start of the meeting. The board will then vote on the appointments and swear in the three new trustees.

The appointments could shift the balance of power on a five-member governing board that had been at loggerheads.

Banducci, McKenzie and Barnes represented a bloc of trustees with ties to the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. The three voted to fire MacLennan in September, without explanation, and promoted Sebaaly a month later.

But Barnes resigned in January over residency questions. And two other longtime trustees, Christie Wood and Ken Howard, resigned in April after months of board infighting. Wood and Howard had opposed the MacLennan firing and the decision to promote Sebaaly.

But even with new trustees in place, the tension might not dissipate overnight. Banducci and McKenzie had filed a lawsuit seeking to block the State Board appointments — but they dropped their case after a judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order.

How will the board shake out?

Here’s the rundown by trustee zone:

  • Zone One: Godwin and Wold are seeking to replace Wood.
  • Zone Two: Corkill, Goedde and Wickham are seeking to replace Howard.
  • Zone Three: Banducci (his term runs through 2024).
  • Zone Four: McKenzie (his term runs through 2024.)
  • Zone Five: Broschet, Patzer and Sturm are seeking to succeed Barnes.

Check back Friday for a story on the appointments.

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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