North Idaho College on the brink
On March 6, the New York Times published, “The MAGA-fication of North Idaho College”. Even that title falls short of reality. There is a radical right wing majority (3 to 2) on the North Idaho College Board of Trustees that has its hands on the wheel and is driving North Idaho College (NIC) off the cliff.
Here’s a clip from the article that offers orientation for those of my readers who haven’t been following this story [the bold is mine]:
For most of the past two years, [North Idaho] college’s governing board [of Trustees] has been a volatile experiment in turning grievances into governance. Trustees backed by the [Kootenai] county Republican Party [Central Committee] hold a [3 to 2] majority on the board. They have denounced liberal “indoctrination” by the college faculty and vowed to bring the school administration’s “deep state” to heel and “Make N.I.C. Great Again.”
The injection of such sweeping political aims into the routine administration of a community college that had 4,600 students enrolled last year, one better known locally for its technical training programs than the politics of its faculty, has devolved into a full-blown crisis. The school has faced lawsuits from two of the five presidents it has had since the start of the previous school year. A district court judge ordered one of those presidents reinstated on Friday in a ruling that castigated the trustees for “steering N.I.C. toward an iceberg.” The college has lost professors and staff and had its debt downgraded by Moody’s, which cited the school’s “significant governance and management dysfunction.”
The troubles culminated last month in a letter from the regional higher education commission, which warned that the 90-year-old college could be stripped of its accreditation if changes were not made in a matter of weeks — an effective threat of closure and a potential catastrophe for Coeur d’Alene, a town of 56,000 in the Idaho Panhandle. The college is the sixth-largest employer in Kootenai County and a source of skilled labor for much of the local economy.
This is a big deal for Coeur d’Alene, for North Idaho, and for the Inland Northwest. If North Idaho College loses its accreditation, the resulting exodus of students and faculty from the region will have long term and wide-ranging effects.
How did it come to this and why? Why can’t we, in the words of Rodney King, “just get along” on what should be mutually beneficial goals of education that so very obviously strengthens the regional economy?
On February 25, the Kootenai County Democratic Party held the “Hijacking Democracy Symposium” in Post Falls. North Idaho College was a major topic. Around two hundred people attended—in no small part, I expect, because people are beginning to pay attention to the regional consequences that the collapse of North Idaho College would produce. A number of people close to the matter spoke at the Symposium, including former members of the Board of Trustees.
As is common with community colleges, each member of the Board of Trustees of NIC comes from one of five geographically defined zones within Kootenai County, but members are elected to the Board by voters on a county-wide ballot. Positions on the Board are, at least nominally, non-partisan. Every two years either two or three of the five seats appear on the ballot. Ordinarily, these elections draw little notice. In more normal times than the present the people who run for positions on the Board because they have expertise and experience in education offer and a commitment to the mission of the College.
Todd Banducci, the Board member whose name appears in nearly every article about the ongoing Board controversy, has held a seat on the NIC Board since 2012. During his first two four year terms he was characterized by other members of the NIC Board as “a man who always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder”, but, as the single dissenting voice, he lacked the power to make any major changes.
Prior to the 2020 elections Banducci told at least one of the other Board members that “things were going to change”. Few paid any attention to that not-so-veiled threat. Three of the five seats (Zones 3, 4, 5) on the Board of Trustees were coming up on the ballot in the fall. Banducci ran unopposed to retain his seat from Zone 3 (Post Falls, more or less). Using his position as a member of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee (KCRCC) it appears that he recruited two like-minded folk (both of them Kootenai County Republican Precinct captains), Gregory McKenzie (Zone 4, Hayden, Dalton Gardens) and Michael H. Barnes (Zone 5, Rathdrum and NE). Zone 4’s incumbent, Dr. Joe Dunlap (who had served as the President of NIC from 2012 to 2016), ran a quiet campaign to retain the seat he had held since 2016. The Zone 5 seat was vacant. Banducci’s candidate, Michael Barnes, was challenged by Dr. Paul Sturm, a man with 28 years experience in higher education, something apparently seen by the KCRCC as a disqualification.
With three of its own, Banducci, McKenzie, and Barnes, on the ballot, the KCRCC transformed what were usually sleepy, nonpartisan races into contentious, partisan, ideological contests. The candidates were polled with a litmus test questionnaire and the KCRCC went to work touting their slate of partisan ideologues. The KCRCC slate won over nonpartisan educational expertise and administrative experience by substantial margins.
Armed with a new 3-2 majority, Banducci was elected chairman of the NIC Board. The three didn’t hesitate to flex their idealogical muscle. They sparred with the NIC President Rick MacLennan repeatedly, and, then “without cause” (but coincident with a dispute over a mask mandate), in September 2021 the three voted to fire MacLennan, replacing him as President with the College’s wrestling coach.
The year and half since the firing of MacLennan has been marred with constant turmoil, accusations, and lawsuits. Three Board members resigned, which triggered the need for the State Board of Education to make interim appointments. (Two resignations were strategic. The third was Barnes, one of KCRCC triumvirate, whose resignation was forced under accusations that his legal residence was actually in South Dakota.) All this upheavals resulted in the unnecessary expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal maneuvering and broken contracts with successive appointees to the NIC presidency. Last fall’s (2022’s) electoral chance for a rational, non-ideological majority on the Board foundered on the Zone 5 seat contest pitting appointed incumbent Broschet against KCRCC candidate Waggoner. (Some speculate that Broschet lost because voters who were primed to dump Banducci [whose seat wasn’t on the ballot this time] incorrectly took out their ire on Broschet.)
The whole saga of the last two years of NIC Board governance has been pretty much the definition of a sh_tshow. (For flavor and color of the current 3 to 2 ideological majority on the NIC Board I recommend Shawn Vestal’s excellent commentary “NIC board scores big with Holocaust denier, not so much the bond raters”.)
At the Hijacking Democracy Symposium in Post Falls a couple of weeks ago the question arose, “What is the end game of the KCRCC sponsored NIC Board majority that is driving this mess?” Conspiracy theories suggesting destruction of NIC for the purpose of a cheap land grab for a new school modeled on the private, ultraconservative Hillsdale College—or for acquisition by real estate interests—were discarded for a variety of good reasons. The prevailing opinion was this: Banducci and company are animated by a deep-seated ideological fear that somehow NIC is controlled by the evil “deep state” that is out to wreck the country and subjugate people of like them. As such, professors of a “liberal” bent must be weeded out, their tenure curtailed, and their positions given over to those who will toe the right wing line. Banducci and company are sincerely driven by the same paranoid right wing Republican ideology as Florida’s Gov. DeSantis, his ally Christopher Rufo, and, locally, members of the Liberty Lake City Council (think Chris Cargill) and members of several local school boards intent on controlling what can be mentioned, taught, and read.
The moral of this story? Catastrophes like this one could averted if more people paid closer attention to local elections—and if more people considered running for board positions, as precinct committee officers, and other civic engagements. If average citizens don’t pay more attention we will find ourselves controlled by Banduccis.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. The dysfunction continues. The new (since the 2022 November election) KCRCC 3-2 majority (Banducci, McKenzie, and Waggoner), was no time in putting the newest NIC President, Dr. Nick Swayne, on administrative leave “without cause”. They replaced him with interim President Greg South, likely an ideological ally. Last week a Kootenai County Judge ruled that the Board must re-instate Swayne because the Board lacked the authority to place him on leave “without cause”. Judge Meyer added, “By keeping Dr. Swayne on leave, the Board is permitting its Interim President to make discretionary decisions that should be made by Dr. Swayne.” One might presume that Mr. South was furthering the KCRCC agenda.
P.S.S. If you have any doubt of the commonness of this sort of Fox News/social-media-induced paranoid thinking that Banducci and the KCRCC demonstrate, read the letter to the editor that I have copied below. It recently appeared in a North Idaho newspaper. This is the depth to which we have sunk, spurred on by the incessant, mind-numbing BS that spews from Fox News, OAN, the Epoch Times, and many sites on social media. Especially ironic, of course, is this writer’s raving that the press and social media are “firmly under the control of the government” even as his letter is published in the paper. Paranoia strikes deep…
Our nation is in a state of chaos. Each day we’re reminded of another crisis, each could topple the union of its own accord. This administration doesn’t appear willing to tackle even one. Some cases in point:
More than 7 million illegal aliens crossed our porous borders over the past two years, stressing our economy, disrupting our society and providing our enemies an open route to the heartland.
Our national debt exceeds GNP. Inflation is at 40-plus year highs, manufacturing has been shipped overseas, and we are on the cusp of losing “reserve currency” status. We will be bankrupt in short order.
Vaccine mandates undermined faith in our health system and the government. If rising excess fatality hits the pace forecast by many, we will face societal collapse.
Globalists at the UN and WEF seek to destroy the US and supplant it with a single World government. Most of our elected leaders have been coopted or compromised. Our own President is prepared to sign treaties handing our sovereignty over to the World Health Organization.
We no longer have a free press, essential to protecting our liberties. The mainstream press and social media are firmly under the control of the government, pushing whatever narrative they are handed.
Our military has become a social petri dish, with decisions made to support the Woke agenda vs increased lethality, while the Chinese laugh.
Our enemies, China, the UN, the WEF, the WBO, the World Bank, are at the gate, waiting to pounce on a weakened USA.