Analysis: Familiar political turmoil clouds NIC’s ‘new dawn’

In the spirit of the season, North Idaho College trustees gave us a lot to unwrap Monday night.

During a two-hour, 45-minute meeting, the board hired an attorney — a political ally of three Republican-aligned trustees. The board put a leadership hire on hold, even though regional accreditors have admonished the college to fill their depleted administrative ranks.

And trustees spent much of their time rehashing and relitigating old fights — an airing of grievances worthy of Festivus.

Todd Banducci

“It’s a new dawn here at NIC,” lightning-rod trustee Todd Banducci crowed at one point.

More like same dysfunction, different day.

If this were merely political theater, that would be one thing. But for Coeur d’Alene’s 89-year-old community college, the drama carries serious implications, for enrollment, charitable giving and accreditation. If NIC loses its accreditation, students won’t be able to receive state scholarships or transfer their credits to another school. High school students’ dual-credit courses — bankrolled by taxpayers — would be rendered worthless.

None of this is new, of course. The wheels began falling off at NIC shortly after the November 2020 elections, when Banducci and two other Kootenai County Republican Central Committee-endorsed candidates secured a majority on NIC’s five-person board. That’s when longtime President Rick MacLennan got fired, wrestling coach Michael Sebaaly was named interim president, a host of top administrators jumped ship and accreditors started taking a hard look at NIC.

In the November election, the GOP central committee reclaimed the upper hand on the board, with Mike Waggoner elected to side with holdovers Banducci and Greg McKenzie, who still have two years left on their terms.

It didn’t take long for the three to flex their muscles.

They hired Art Macomber as the college’s legal counsel. An unsuccessful attorney general’s candidate earlier this year, Macomber is, like Banducci and McKenzie, a Republican precinct committeeman. The board vote: 3-2.

They passed a resolution putting NIC administrative hires on hold — even though finalists for the job of vice president of instruction and student affairs are coming to Coeur d’Alene for interviews this week. “We’re going to take a pause for a moment,” said Banducci, proposing the resolution. The board vote: 3-2.

But much of Monday’s meeting had a foot in NIC’s tumultuous recent history.

Greg McKenzie

Banducci and McKenzie directed a few barbs at Gov. Brad Little and his State Board of Education; they’re still smarting because the State Board filled three vacancies on the board in May, short-term appointments that left Banducci and McKenzie operating in the minority. And new President Nick Swayne — hired in June by the State Board appointees, over objections from Banducci and McKenzie — stepped squarely into the crossfire Monday. He balked at signing the hastily presented agreement to hire Macomber, on advice from Little’s office, which said the move could violate Idaho’s open meeting law. (Little’s office has had “regular communication” with Swayne, but has provided no legal advice, spokeswoman Madison Hardy said Wednesday.)

When Swayne couldn’t provide specifics about the open meetings issue, McKenzie took a dig at Little’s staff. “That’s typical of them. … Convenient.”

All that was brief, compared to the diatribe from Banducci that started Monday night’s meeting. After Banducci was reinstated as board chairman — on, you guessed it, a 3-2 board vote — he held nothing back. He leveled some serious accusations: He said he’d received texts saying he should “go die,” and said opponents left flyers bearing swastikas at his son’s business. He accused his political foes of brokering in “convenient fictions” that painted him as an extremist and a bully.

“Some of you are the biggest bullies there ever was, and the biggest cowards to boot,” said Banducci, addressing his detractors. “I’m living in a lot of your heads, fortunately, rent free.”

With that, Banducci turned down the chairman’s spot, nominating McKenzie. Banducci’s second term as chairman lasted all of eight minutes — much shorter than his 17-month run from 2020 to 2022, but no more harmonious.

Nick Swayne

The bottom line: NIC is facing an existential threat, as students continue to turn away. Swayne said he would like to get enrollment back to 5,000 next year, and approach the 6,000 mark in 2025.

But those are ambitious goals. Enrollment fell below 4,300 this semester, after another 6% decrease. It’s been three years since NIC’s enrollment exceeded the 5,000 mark. The longer accreditation questions loom over NIC, the harder it will be to get students and their parents to bet on the college.

Political turmoil comes at a price.

Which explains why the Friends of NIC political action committee raised close to $150,000 to oppose the Republican Central Committee’s slate of candidates. (Friends of NIC prevailed in two of the three November races, with the Republican-endorsed Waggoner winning the third race.)

Which also explains why Idaho’s Future PAC raised $98,000 to support a mainstream slate in College of Western Idaho trustee races — and oppose a quartet of hardline conservatives. (The mainstream candidates won across the board.)

Education is always on the ballot, perhaps now more than ever. And heretofore ho-hum community college trustee races are evidence of that.

We don’t yet know exactly how the November elections will affect Statehouse education politics. We won’t know until January what to make of a Senate Education Committee stacked with hardline conservatives. Same for the House Education Committee, where moderate Republicans Julie Yamamoto of Caldwell and Lori McCann of Lewiston will serve as chair and vice chair, respectively.

At North Idaho College, we know what to expect.

And a “new dawn” it ain’t.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

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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