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Mar 15, 2023 6 min read

Fight over North Idaho College is costing students and employers

Fight over North Idaho College is costing students and employers
The iceberg is coming from inside the boat. 
Table of Contents

NIC losing accreditation would have massive impacts on the local economy

By Susan Drumheller

North Idaho College remains locked in an epic match between advocates for higher education and three college trustees whose decisions have put the college’s accreditation at risk.

The politicization of the North Idaho College (NIC) board of trustees threatens to disrupt more than just the campus community. Local students would lose an affordable and accessible education if the college loses its accreditation and the region would lose a linchpin of the local economy, impacting key sectors like healthcare and construction.

Despite a recent court victory for college President Nick Swayne, who trustees placed on administrative leave without cause in early December, the turmoil is far from over. The court order returned Swayne to work March 6, but not before the college was given a final warning by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) to demonstrate that they have met the accreditation standards and eligibility requirements. A loss of accreditation would have catastrophic consequences for the college.

“Losing accreditation is so much bigger than my credits. It affects the entire future of the community of Coeur d’Alene,” said Damian Maxwell, president of the Associated Students of NIC (ASNIC). “It’s a college for everyone and we’re losing it over political theater.”

Swayne’s reinstatement has created optimism that an experienced president can navigate a potentially treacherous process, but NIC staff, supporters and local business leaders worry the trustees may sabotage Swayne’s efforts to keep the college afloat.

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Political education

With so much to lose from the conflict over school leadership, local business leaders are puzzled by the moves the board has made. “What’s the end game for these trustees?” said Katie Brodie, chair of the Kootenai Health Board of Directors, referring to trustees Greg McKenzie, Todd Banducci and Mike Waggoner. “I don’t see where they are helping the community. If history is repeating itself, it’s going to be a tough struggle for [Swayne].”

NIC is on its fifth president in less than two years, and the escalating conflict has been the subject of national attention since March 2021.

Swayne was hired last summer following a rigorous process that involved interviews with students, faculty and staff. He was the third president for the college in less than a year, and tackled problems that arose after the board fired a previous president and elevated a wrestling coach to run the college on an interim basis.

The makeup of the five-person board of trustees shifted again after elections last fall, when Waggoner won, joining Banducci and McKenzie in the board majority endorsed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. During the campaign, Waggoner called the risk of losing accreditation “fake news.” Banducci has complained about a “deep state” of entrenched liberals at NIC.

Shortly after the election, the college was thrust back into turmoil when the trustees placed Swayne on administrative leave and hired a fourth president, Greg South. Swayne filed for an injunction to get his job back and prevailed.

In contrast to Waggoner’s comments, the possible loss of accreditation has been a persistent fear among community members and NIC advocates since 2021.

That fear was realized Feb. 9, two months after Swayne’s ouster, when NIC received a letter to show cause why the college should keep its accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). It was the commission’s final warning. NIC has until March 31 to respond.

NIC is now paying two presidents (South is on leave following Swayne’s reinstatement but still on payroll) and defending itself against three lawsuits. The college lost its state-subsidized insurance and Moody’s Investment Services recently downgraded its bond rating. Enrollment is dropping (over 9% in the last year), faculty and staff are leaving, and all of the upheaval is creating a downward fiscal spiral that Swayne must reverse.

Bigger than credits

If NWCCU withdraws accreditation, NIC students will no longer qualify for federal financial aid, student enrollment will drop and entire programs may be lost.

NIC has no admission requirements, and is the cheapest post-secondary education option for North Idaho students — 75% of whom rely on financial aid — making it an important platform for people to access career training and find better-paying jobs. For the same reason, employers say it’s a vital node in Kootenai County’s workforce development. Current students will not lose their credits if accreditation is stripped, but future students would, and the cost of a NIC education would increase.

In granting the injunction reinstating Swayne, District Judge Cynthia Meyer wrote: “…the Board’s majority has wrongfully locked its captain in the brig while steering NIC toward an iceberg.”

Faculty and local business leaders say that iceberg won’t just sink NIC, but also the economy of the greater Coeur d’Alene area, while reducing opportunities for area residents.

“Everything in this community will be affected by the loss of NIC,” said Brodie, a stalwart Republican who served as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s North Idaho representative. “I went to NIC. I love NIC. I keep hearing, ‘Oh these liberal teachers, they are teaching such extreme things.’ Oh Baloney!”

According to an analysis by labor market consultant Lightcast (EMSI) for the Coeur d’Alene Area Economic Development Corporation (also known as Jobs Plus), the college contributes between $58 - $60 million in earnings annually between the NIC workforce and jobs generated in the community because of the college. The study estimated a loss of 1,291 jobs if NIC closes its doors.

Trustees McKenzie, Banducci and Waggoner did not respond to requests for comment.

The college serves both traditional and non-traditional students. People looking to become mechanics, forklift operators, chefs, electricians, pharmacists and more turn to NIC for two year degrees and professional and other certifications.

“Business leaders of all political stripes are at risk of their talent pool being taken away,” said Mike Kennedy, chairman of Jobs Plus.

Kootenai Health is one of the area’s largest healthcare employers, and they tell RANGE there are currently 500 open positions that require specialized training and certifications. In the health sector, NIC trains people in everything from nursing to medical billing.

Nationally and locally, there is a shortage of nurses, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and other clinical staff, according to Kim Anderson, Kootenai Health spokeswoman: “Without the clinical and non-clinical pipelines of workers provided by NIC, Kootenai Health would struggle to onboard and retain the quality and volume of employees needed to provide care to our community.”

Angel Beier, a 21-year-old nursing student, got a leg up through NIC’s dual enrollment program. The Kellogg High School graduate spent her senior year attending classes at NIC, and later saved more money living at home while attending college. She expects to be working as a nurse by 2024.

“The nursing program is a staple of NIC,” said Beier, who also serves as ASNIC vice president. She’s worried for the future of the college and her instructors, who have started voicing concerns in recent months. “This whole issue is really serious.”

Many faculty and staff have left due to the stress, uncertainty and lack of administrative support. One is Brian Seguin, who is leaving to work at the Gonzaga Law School library.

A Priest River native, Seguin was a first-generation NIC student. He speaks glowingly of his experience both as student and employee – until 2020 when the administrative problems began.

“It’s been two years of not being able to have a stable environment to build that culture and climate that allows students to thrive and sets us apart from other community colleges,” Seguin said. “It’s hurtful to us as employees that we are being painted and demonized as doing something nefarious.”

Optimism and uncertainty

The return of Swayne to the helm has sparked renewed optimism.

“The change in the air is palpable at NIC,” said Keri Simonet, senior administrative assistant of operations at NIC’s Workforce Training Center. “People are laughing again, and you can see hope in people’s faces and voices.”

Swayne and NIC have a cheering section that dominates contentious board meetings and spans the state. State legislators are trying to pass a bill to give the State Board of Education temporary authority over any college or university that is threatened by loss of accreditation.

NIC advocates say the increased news coverage of the problems scares away students but also raises awareness needed to turnout pro-NIC votes in the 2024 elections, which are guaranteed to be hard-fought.

“The tide of opinion is turning, but the larger issue is the demographics of Idaho and the political influence of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee,” said NIC English professor John Trombold, who heads the college Diversity Council, one of several entities to recently call on trustees to denounce harassment of students who have spoken out about the controversy.

He worries that the New Deal roots of the college — sprouting a social pact welcoming all comers — are being undermined: “Now that we are no longer seen as working in service of the community as a whole, but rather as some global government conspiracy, then something very valuable has been lost.”

Susan Drumheller is a freelance journalist based out of North Idaho. She was a longtime reporter and editor at The Spokesman-Review and contributes regularly to the Sandpoint Reader.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that only Waggoner won a board of trustees election last fall. Banducci and McKenzie's seats were not up for election in 2022.

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