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News / Northwest

North Idaho College has one last shot to fix accreditation

By James Hanlon, The Spokesman-Review
Published: April 2, 2024, 7:57am

SPOKANE — North Idaho College has exactly one year left to return to good standing, or it will lose accreditation per federal rules. A final report this fall could be its last chance.

The college’s academics and finances are in good shape — it’s all about dysfunction on the board of trustees.

“Progress has been made, no doubt about it,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the college’s accreditor, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. “The only aspect that continues to remain a challenge is the governance.”

Representatives from NWCCU will conduct one more campus visit Oct. 14-15 and will prepare a final report for the commission to review in January 2025.

The U.S. Department of Education requires accreditation sanctions for two-year colleges be resolved within three years. Since NIC was first sanctioned April 1, 2022, it has until April 2025 to return to good standing or it will lose accreditation.

However, the problems need to be essentially resolved well before then — by the October site visit — so they can be reviewed and included in the report.

The commission’s most recent report in November concluded that while NIC has made progress on policy, the fundamental concerns of poor board governance remain. The same report commended the dedication and resilience of NIC’s administration, faculty, staff and students.

A subcommittee of trustees Mike Waggoner and Tarie Zimmerman followed NWCCU’s recommendation to overhaul outdated policies last year. Now it is a matter of following those policies and demonstrating they are doing so, NIC President Nick Swayne said.

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But some in the community doubt the board majority has the will to cross the finish line.

Although the trustee positions are nonpartisan, the board is divided by a three-member majority supported by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee — the county’s official Republican party — against the two members endorsed by the moderate North Idaho Republicans and Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce.

“It is all in the hands of those three board members,” said Tony Stewart, secretary of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. The organization, along with human rights task forces from Bonner, Boundary and Spokane counties, submitted two detailed complaints about board actions in 2021 that led the NWCCU to investigate.

Recommendations

A letter from NWCCU last month highlighted the unresolved “recommendations” — which are the required practical steps NIC should take to return to compliance.

The most persistent issue is that the college has simultaneously employed two presidents since December 2022 when the new board majority placed Swayne on administrative leave without cause and hired Greg South. Swayne successfully sued NIC to reinstate him last March, but South has remained on payroll “in good standing” ever since.

NIC appealed Swayne’s lawsuit to the Idaho Supreme Court, which led the accreditation evaluators to conclude that the board was unwilling to resolve the issue.

The board must “unequivocally identify one CEO/President for the institution,” NWCCU wrote.

Chairman Mike Waggoner announced in January that NIC would not renew South’s 18-month contract when it expires June 30.

In the meantime, South continues to collect his $235,000 salary, which is $5,000 more than Swayne’s and includes other benefits.

That the board didn’t terminate South’s contract has been a sore point, Stewart said.

Another recommendation is to resolve all current litigation to ensure long-term financial stability. Although the college’s budget may be above board, the accreditation crisis has not come without its costs — especially in the form of attorney fees, a higher insurance rate and a downgraded bond rating.

Declining enrollment over the last decade has been another worry, but Swayne shared good news that the number of first-time, degree-seeking students for spring enrollment is up 19%.

NWCCU’s other recommendations have to do with the board’s conduct.

The board needs to adhere to its policies and procedures without overreaching, include staff and students in decision-making processes, strengthen its relationship with the president and “create an environment of respectful discourse.”

The board has participated in numerous trainings on ethics and governance by the Association of Community College Trustees.

In November, the board shook up its leadership by unanimously electing Mike Waggoner to replace Greg McKenzie as chair. While Waggoner is aligned with McKenzie and Todd Banducci, he is seen as more moderate and has made an effort to bridge the gap with the other trustees Brad Corkill and Zimmerman.

Tony Stewart said Waggoner has been more respectful than his predecessors, McKenzie and Banducci, which is encouraging, though Waggoner still votes with them on key issues.

Despite attempts to maintain order, Waggoner has been criticized for not asserting enough control over meetings.

Banducci and McKenzie have continued spats against Swayne, and during public comment in January, Banducci called a staff member “stupid” and “idiotic.”

The board also needs to resolve numerous “no confidence” resolutions from the student, staff and faculty assemblies made after Swayne’s attempted ousting at the end of 2022.

For many months the board had been drafting a civility resolution that attempted to address some of these concerns, but the resolution fell apart last month when members of both factions voted it down.

Zimmerman said she initially supported the idea, but behavior at recent meetings changed her mind and she doesn’t believe it would be sincere.

“I’m not sure any longer a resolution is what we need,” Zimmerman said.

Corkill said Banducci recently called him “a jackass.”

“I don’t see where signing a policy for civility is going to stop that kind of behavior,” Corkill said.

The resolution would have pledged the board to “listen first,” “respect different opinions,” “speak truthfully,” and “refrain from making slanderous, profane, or personal remarks intended to humiliate, intimidate, malign, or question the motivation of those whose opinions are different.”

Banducci said he opposed the resolution because it could be used as a weapon to silence him and McKenzie.

Jamie Berube, an administrative assistant at NIC, commented on the civility resolution in January, saying three board members have not followed those actions.

“You don’t debate policy, you attack people, especially one member of this board,” Berube said.

Chuckling can be heard at that point on the meeting’s video.

“Smile at me Todd; you’re the one I’m talking about,” Berube said.

“Yeah, I feel a lot of respect over the last 11 years,” Banducci said sarcastically about his three terms on the board. “It’s a joke, sorry, I have to laugh when you say such stupid things.”

“This is a perfect example of your behavior,” someone shouted among outcry from the audience.

“Would ‘idiotic’ have been a better word?” Banducci replied.

Later in the meeting, Associated Students of North Idaho College President Michael Habermann decried the incident.

“When board members are up here, you guys set the standard for how people treat you and how you treat people,” Habermann said. “I understand some board members may have been treated unfairly in the past, but I would ask the board refrain from using terms to college employees like ‘idiotic.’ I understand you guys catch a lot of flak and I understand you have some disagreements, but it is heartbreaking as a student to see that.”

Staff Assembly President Matt Piekarski read a statement at the next meeting that also rebuked Banducci’s behavior, saying he violated board policy, “was disrespectful, unprofessional and created an uncomfortable and hostile environment.” The assembly requested that the board issue a public apology and take steps to rectify the situation.

Banducci didn’t hear Piekarski’s comments because he stepped out of the room.

Much of the original accreditation complaints submitted in 2021 trace back to Banducci’s conduct when he was chair.

The five trustees either declined or did not reply to interview requests for this story.

Stewart said it is difficult to understand what majority trustees want.

“It appears to be based on an ideology not healthy for a public institution,” Stewart said.

Attached in the original complaint was an email Banducci sent to a student that said, “I’m battling the NIC ‘deep state’ on an almost daily basis.”

“I think that’s the best explanation of his ideological viewpoint,” Stewart said.

The future of the college will depend on what happens in November, when the three majority seats are up for election, Stewart said.

“I want to have hope, but it is hard right now,” said Christa Hazel, who leads the activist organization Save NIC. She worries the November election will be too late to fix anything given NWCCU’s timeline. There may be no opportunity for new board members to meet with the commission.

“If I am NWCCU, I’m looking at this as very frustrating,” Hazel said. “These items should be completed by now, or almost. They can’t seem to get out of their own way.”

Hazel said radical thinkers on the side of the board majority opposed to federal funding or involvement appear willing to hold the institution hostage by creating an accreditation crisis.

Brent Regan, chair of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, has blamed progressives for manufacturing the accreditation crisis.

When Waggoner was elected in 2022, Regan told The Spokesman-Review “accreditation was never seriously at risk.”

He is still unconcerned.

“Apparently they have been making good progress toward accreditation,” Regan said. “The new chairman seems to know his stuff.”

What happens if NIC loses accreditation?

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities has required NIC to make teach-out agreements for all of its academic programs by the end of August. These agreements would be signed by nearby institutions that would allow students to transfer if NIC loses accreditation.

Ramaswamy said students are the top priority in this process, and they should not worry about losing student aid, the validity of their credits or their degree.

Swayne said it still could be a hardship for some NIC students to transfer to another school. There isn’t another Idaho community college nearby, and even transferring to University of Idaho in Moscow would bring higher tuition and would require moving. Transferring to a college in the Spokane area would mean out-of-state tuition and a commute.

Swayne emphasized that although NIC is working on these agreements as a precaution, it is not currently in the teach-out phase.

“Hopefully we never get to that point,” he said.

When the NWCCU board reviews the fall report in January, it will determine whether NIC has met all accreditation requirements.

If NIC makes significant progress, it could be removed from sanction, but would likely remain under “heightened monitoring,” Ramaswamy said.

If NIC loses accreditation, the teach-out plan would be triggered. Depending on the timing, NIC may be allowed to finish the semester or academic year before transferring students.

NIC would also be allowed to appeal the decision or ask for arbitration.

And the college could apply for accreditation again after two years, but it would have to go through the full vetting process.

Most other schools that have lost accreditation are private, for-profit colleges that have academic or financial trouble. Board governance is almost never the key issue, so NIC is in uncharted territory.

NWCCU has accredited NIC since 1947.

“Our expectation, our hope is the institution will turn things around,” Ramaswamy said. “NIC is a jewel for the community.”

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