North Idaho College leaders urged trustees to reinstate Swayne

Nick Swayne

Last month, two top North Idaho College administrators urged trustees to reinstate President Nick Swayne, in an attempt to preserve the college’s accreditation.

Two days later, trustees took a different path. They instead voted to hire a new interim president, former NIC administrator Gregory South, while keeping Swayne on paid administrative leave. It means the college is on the hook to pay both South and Swayne — at a combined annual salary of $465,000.

NIC defended its move this week. In a report to regional accreditors, NIC said its trustees “took their responsibility seriously” by quickly contacting and hiring South, filling a leadership vacuum at the embattled community college. Reinstating Swayne was out of the question, NIC said, partly because he has sued the college in an attempt to return to work.

NIC’s report represents the college’s formal response to the latest threat to its accreditation. On Dec. 17, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities again said governing dysfunction placed the college’s accreditation in jeopardy — and ordered NIC to submit a written response explaining why the college should remain accredited. NIC submitted its response on Wednesday’s due date.

A loss of accreditation could have a profound effect on NIC and its 4,300 students. Course credits from NIC would not transfer to other schools, affecting full- and part-time students and high school students taking dual credit classes. Students would also be ineligible for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship.

The accreditation woes are tied, in part, to the leadership churn.

On Dec. 19, two days after the NWCCU issued its warning, college co-CEOs Lloyd Duman and Sarah Garcia gave trustees a written list of recommendations. One of their recommendations was to immediately reinstate Swayne, who had been placed on leave Dec. 8.

Gregory South

On a divided vote, trustees hired South as interim president on Dec. 21.

The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee-aligned majority bloc on the board — and their recently hired attorney, Art Macomber, a political ally — say that they put Swayne on administrative leave in order to investigate a change in his contract. Because of that investigation — and Swayne’s Dec. 16 lawsuit, seeking his reinstatement — the GOP-aligned trustees and Macomber maintain that the college needed to hire an interim president.

South will make $235,000 a year, eclipsing Swayne’s $230,000 salary. And it’s unclear how long South will stay on the job, while Swayne remains in paid limbo. South’s contract runs through June 2024.

“The results of the investigation and litigation will determine the course of action for the board regarding the status of (Swayne),” NIC said in its report to accreditors.

In the 12-page response, officials pointed out to several steps they have taken to address NIC’s ongoing turmoil.

  • South has the go-ahead “to fill all vacant senior administrative positions.” Leadership turnover has been one of NWCCU’s recurring accreditation concerns.
  • Board Chairman Greg McKenzie has publicly apologized for “his mistakes and foul language” during a series of contentious recent meetings. “(South and McKenzie) are committed to working with fellow trustees towards building mutual respect with each other, members of the faculty, staff and administration, and the public.”
  • NIC’s new administrative team “has pledged to work with the board to organize the development of and to guide and coach trustees on the principals (sic) of good governance.”
  • The board acknowledged several violations of Idaho’s Open Meeting Law, and trustees pledged to seek open meetings training from the attorney general’s office “as soon as possible.”

But NIC’s response also acknowledged some costly concerns, on top of the price of maintaining two presidents on the payroll.

In December, Moody’s Investors Service said it was reviewing NIC for a potential downgrade, which could affect $7.9 million in debts.

NIC’s insurance bills have also increased sharply. The college is paying $500,000 for liability coverage with a new carrier, after the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program dropped the college earlier this year. ICRMP had charged the college $321,000.

ICRMP dropped the college after it was forced to pay out about half of the college’s nearly $500,000 settlement with former President Rick MacLennan, who was fired in 2021.

 

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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