Analysis: NIC pays a high price for dysfunction and discord

It’s hard to calculate the cost of dysfunction and discord at North Idaho College.

But NIC staff tried last week.

In a blunt, unflinching response to regional accreditors, the college chronicled its board’s litany of missteps and pleaded for clemency. There was an appropriate air of desperation.

If NIC loses its accreditation, its students will no longer be able to transfer credits to another school, or qualify for financial aid. NIC’s downward enrollment spiral is likely to worsen. Would-be donors are likely to continue sitting on their money. And a 90-year-old community college will lose much of its value to its community.

It’s not an exaggeration to say the college faces an existential, self-inflicted threat.

In last week’s 36-page report to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities — the body that will decide the fate of NIC’s accreditation — college officials tallied prices already paid, and potential looming costs.

A 2023 shortfall. For starters, NIC is overspending its 2022-23 budget by more than $1 million.

One big reason: When trustees fired President Rick MacLennan without cause, the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program decided it had seen enough, and dropped NIC as a customer. The college found a new insurer — for $1.2 million, up from the $515,000 originally budgeted to pay ICRMP.

Another reason for the shortfall is NIC’s chronic, costly habit of swapping out presidents. In December, trustees placed Nick Swayne on paid leave, and convinced Gregory South to return to NIC as interim presidents. Now, the college is shelling out more than $616,000 for salaries and benefits, more than twice what was budgeted.

Eroding enrollment. The report doesn’t hang all of NIC’s enrollment problems on the board — correctly noting that community colleges across the nation have struggled to attract students since the pandemic. However, the report says this year’s tuition collections are $500,000 below projections, and NIC is projecting another $500,000 shortfall in 2023-24.

A dual credit crash? North Idaho STEM Charter Academy has already stopped offering NIC dual credit classes, and college officials fear other high schools may follow suit. “A loss of dual credit partners and students has the potential to be an additional financial risk to the college since dual credit contributes over a million dollars to the NIC budget.”

Costly staff exodus. Staffers aren’t just fleeing NIC because of political dysfunction; the report also blames the exodus on high housing costs and “local turmoil in the community regarding the climate around public education.” And NIC is applying savings from attrition to cover its shortfall. But turnover doesn’t come cheap. Recruiting, hiring and training a new employee generally runs about six to nine months of the new worker’s annual salary — and NIC’s 2021-22 turnover exceeded 18%, nearly tripling over three years.

Donor decline. The report says “donor and alumni concerns have spiked since fall 2021” — around when MacLennan was fired. “Declining donor support negatively impacts the Development Department’s ability to support the college through student scholarships and program support,” says the report, which predicts donors will come back if NIC weathers the current storm.

Christa Hazel — a former NIC student body president and Coeur d’Alene school trustee — appreciated the report’s emphasis on costs. She said it picks up on a recurring criticism: that a hardline board, once headed by polarizing chair Todd Banducci, cost the college donor support, and left the college and ICRMP on the hook for a $500,000 settlement with MacLennan.

“Todd Banducci was the six-million-dollar man long ago, then we sort of lost count,” Hazel said this week.

NIC isn’t saying much about the report.

Current board chairman Greg McKenzie did not respond to an interview request. Through college spokeswoman Laura Rumpler, Swayne declined an interview request, pending the NWCCU’s accreditation review, expected to end in June.

The making of the NIC response is somewhat of a mystery.

The report is unsigned and, according to its conclusion, “a collaborative effort of administrators, faculty and staff.” It’s unclear whether trustees or Swayne contributed to the report, reviewed it, requested revisions or ultimately approved it; Rumpler did not respond to these questions this week.

And NIC trustees aren’t doing much with the report, at least publicly.

On March 28, trustees abruptly called off a public meeting. Among the agenda items was a discussion of the draft response to accreditors. On March 30, a special board meeting never happened, because McKenzie, Banducci and fellow GOP-aligned trustee Mike Waggoner were no-shows; the accreditation report was not an agenda item for this aborted meeting.

Then came Friday, when NIC was back in court arguing for District Judge Cynthia Meyer to overturn her March 3 temporary order that put Swayne back on the job while she considers his permanent reinstatement.

NIC’s legal maneuverings contradict the college’s own report to accreditors — which said that Meyer’s order and the trustees’ subsequent reinstatement vote “made it clear to the campus, the board, and the community” that Swayne was the college’s president. And the mixed signals leave Hazel worried about how the accreditation review will turn out.

“I don’t have a good feeling about it,” she said.

The report NIC completed last week was a “show cause” response — essentially a chance for officials to explain why their college should remain accredited. College officials aptly observed that NIC is on a “cliff.”

“This situation is uncharted territory for both of us, and we need your help,” NIC officials said in their conclusion.

Straying into uncharted territory has already set NIC back by millions of dollars. Losing accreditation would be even costlier.

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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