Two years later, NIC faces another pivotal trustee election

Kootenai County voters have been here before.

On Tuesday, they will elect three North Idaho College trustees ­— after two chaotic years of turnover and turmoil.

Who’s running? Three North Idaho College trustee races are on the Nov. 8 ballot. While candidates represent separate zones, they are elected across Kootenai County. Zone 1: Ronald Hartman, Tarie Zimmerman. Zone 4: Brad Corkill, Diana Sheridan. Zone 5: Pete Broschet (incumbent, appointed in May), Mike Waggoner.

Next week’s election could define, or redefine, the politics at the Coeur d’Alene-based community college. Two competing slates are running for the volunteer trustee seats — and while college trustee elections are nonpartisan, one slate is running with the endorsement of the local Republican Party.

What’s the short history?

There is no such thing as a short history when it comes to recent NIC politics, but here’s a summary.

In November 2020, voters elected three trustees supported by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee: Todd Banducci, Greg McKenzie and Michael Barnes.

Within months, these three trustees voted to fire President Rick MacLennan without cause, and voted to promote wrestling coach Michael Sebaaly to the interim president’s post, exerting their majority control on the five-member board.

Meanwhile, several top administrators left NIC. Enrollment continued to decline. Donors reneged on their support. And a regional review panel placed NIC’s accreditation in jeopardy.

Turnover reshaped the board as well. Barnes resigned in January, over questions about his residency. Christie Wood and Ken Howard resigned in April, after more than a year of public squabbling with Banducci, McKenzie and Barnes.

The State Board of Education filled the three trustee vacancies in May — short-term appointments running through the November election. Banducci and McKenzie have two years remaining on their terms.

A business-backed slate

Pete Broschet, Brad Corkill and Tarie Zimmerman are running on a common theme: preserving normalcy and protecting NIC’s accreditation.

  • The accreditation question is “a dark and stormy cloud that’s hanging over the college,” said Broschet, the only one of the State Board appointees running next week. With accreditation in limbo, he said, students aren’t sure their NIC credits will transfer to a four-year school, parents aren’t sure their kids will continue to qualify for financial aid, and school counselors aren’t sure they should recommend NIC. All of this contributes to the enrollment decline, Broschet told the Coeur d’Alene Press.
  • Corkill — who has served on the state’s Charter School Commission and school boards in St. Maries and Kellogg — wants to see the college staffed with tenured, secure and happy faculty members. “Longterm employees are very important,” Corkill told the Coeur d’Alene Press.
  • Zimmerman says accreditation is the biggest issue facing NIC. But she also is confident NIC will get past its compliance issues — and in a Coeur d’Alene Press interview, she said new president Nick Swayne has some “fabulous ideas” for improving programs. As trustees, she told the Press, “We’re here to support him and support the community through him.”

The Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber of Commerce threw its support behind the slate.

“The CDA Regional Chamber rarely endorses candidates, but felt it was necessary to support Broschet, Corkill, and Zimmerman because of the important role the community college plays for business across the region,” the chamber said on its Facebook page.

The GOP-backed slate

Ron Hartman, Diana Sheridan and Mike Waggoner see NIC, and its problems, very differently.

  • Like her running mates, Sheridan downplays the accreditation risk, saying an April 1 warning letter from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities does not overtly threaten to pull accreditation. She noted that several of the NWCCU’s concerns from April have been addressed: NIC has hired a president, the college has a full, five-member board, and a new trustee conduct policy is in place. “I think we’re doing well,” Sheridan said at a recent Kootenai County Republican women’s luncheon.
  • The three GOP-aligned candidates all decry NIC’s enrollment decline; this fall’s headcount came in at 4,299, a 6% drop. But since enrollment has been falling for years, they say the accreditation warning is not the cause. Instead, they say the college has lost touch with its community. Without providing details, Hartman told Republican women that he had heard of an English teacher forcing students to write a pro-aborting paper. “This is our community college. It should have our Christian family values.” (NIC is a public college, receiving a combination of state funds, local property taxes and student tuition and fees.)
  • On his campaign website, Waggoner says an “unaccountable” and “questionable” trustee appointment process has undermined the board’s two conservatives, Banducci and McKenzie. He says voters can shore up community support for NIC by electing a united conservative slate. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Waggoner told Republican women.

Not surprisingly, in one of the state’s most conservative counties, the trustees’ races have become an exercise in playing to the GOP base. Without naming names, Waggoner criticizes the “advertised conservatives” running for trustee. And when Zimmerman described herself as a lifelong Republican in her address to local GOP women, her opponent, Hartman, noted that he alone had gone through the Republican central committee’s vetting process to secure an endorsement.

A divide over dollars

The down-ticket, countywide trustee races don’t appear to be big-money races — at least at a glance.

Corkill has raised the most money of the six candidates, at less than $14,000.

But beneath the surface, there could be a deep money divide.

Friends of NIC — a group supporting Zimmerman, Corkill and Broschet — has raised more than $140,000. That sum includes at least $25,000 from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and $15,000 from a group called Citizens to Elect Qualified and Experienced Candidates, which also is endorsing Zimmerman, Corkill and Broschet.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Friends of NIC spent only $16,082 through Sept. 30, suggesting the group had a large stockpile of cash for the final weeks of the campaign.

On its website, Friends of NIC doesn’t hold back in its assessment of the election. After outside forces attempted a “hostile takeover” of the board, accreditation, workforce training programs and high school dual-credit courses are all at risk.

“North Idaho College is under attack,” the group says.

More reading: An in-depth look at the politically charged trustee races at the College of Western Idaho.


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]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday