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State’s control limited at NIC

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | December 14, 2022 8:39 PM

COEUR d’ALENE — Though state-level leaders are closely watching the chaos at North Idaho College, they say they have limited control over the college’s operations.

“It is unfortunate to see the college experiencing turmoil amid an ongoing investigation into its accreditation — which would significantly impact current NIC students, businesses and the entire region if lost,” said a statement received by The Press on Wednesday from the office of Gov. Brad Little.

Little's office weighed in after, over the course of three meetings last week, the NIC board of trustees cast split votes to hire a new attorney, place NIC President Nick Swayne on administrative leave, unsuccessfully invite former wrestling coach and interim president Michael Sebaaly to return as acting president and then extend the same job offer to an unnamed candidate.

"North Idaho voters elect NIC's board of trustees with the expectation that they will act with the institution's best interest in mind and lead appropriately," said the statement from the governor's office. "The State of Idaho is not involved in NIC's operations outside what is statutorily required."

The Idaho State Board of Education released a similar statement Wednesday.

"By statute, Idaho community colleges are governed by locally elected boards of trustees, not the State Board of Education," said the state board. "Although the State Board of Education has statutory authority to approve academic and career-technical education programs offered at NIC, it does not have authority over general governance of the college."

The state board said it has received numerous questions and comments about recent decisions at NIC, many expressing concern about the college’s accreditation.

NIC is required under Idaho State Board of Education governing policy to be accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, as are all Idaho public colleges and universities. NWCCU accreditation determinations are made independently, without input or oversight from the state board.

The NWCCU sanctioned North Idaho College with a warning in April, citing persistent issues with the board of trustees.

In order to resolve the NWCCU’s concerns, the college was required to hire a permanent president and fill vacant positions in the president’s cabinet.

Last week, trustees put the permanent president hired last summer on administrative leave at the recommendation of the board's new attorney and froze hiring for vacant cabinet positions.

“The State Board of Education recognizes concerns expressed by the community and will continue to closely monitor developments regarding NIC’s governance and accreditation, and any potential impacts to students, faculty and staff at the college,” said the state board.

NIC trustees will meet again Dec. 21, not Thursday, as they decided when they met Saturday, although action on a meeting date change was not on the agenda for that meeting.

Board chair Greg McKenzie moved forward with a motion to amend the agenda after saying the board was following a section of Idaho open meeting law that allows them to do so. The subsection of the law cited by McKenzie states action cannot be taken on an amended agenda item unless an emergency is declared.

Though one trustee had a conflicting engagement scheduled and another wasn’t present Saturday to give input, McKenzie said it was impossible to have the meeting any day other than Thursday.

When questioned about the emergency by Trustee Tarie Zimmerman, McKenzie indicated the emergency was “to address the leadership” at the college. There is no acting president of NIC at this time since the trustees placed Swayne on administrative leave and Sebaaly turned down their offer for him to return.

“We’re working at a rapid pace to make that agenda happen,” he said. “It’s time critical and time sensitive.”

NIC announced Wednesday morning that no meeting would take place Thursday, but that a meeting was now scheduled for Dec. 21 and that an agenda would be forthcoming.

McKenzie said Saturday that another meeting must occur quickly so the board can cure any violations of Idaho’s open meeting law from the previous three meetings.

“Nobody wants to admit a mistake was made, but out of an abundance of caution, I am willing to have a discussion on open meeting law violations,” he said.

The comment contrasted McKenzie’s statements at a different special meeting two days prior, when he maintained that no violations occurred.

“Any newspaper articles implying that open meeting laws are violated seemed to have an agenda,” he said last Thursday.

The next meeting of the NIC board of trustees is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 6 p.m. at Schuler Performing Arts Center.

Full statements:

Office of Idaho Gov. Brad Little:

"Governor Little has long recognized North Idaho College's immense value to the surrounding community. NIC is a leader in developing a skilled and reliable workforce that supports Idaho's growing economy and connects Idahoans to meaningful careers. It is unfortunate to see the college experiencing turmoil amid an ongoing investigation into its accreditation – which would significantly impact current NIC students, businesses, and the entire region if lost. North Idaho voters elect NIC's board of trustees with the expectation that they will act with the institution's best interest in mind and lead appropriately. The State of Idaho is not involved in NIC's operations outside what is statutorily required. Governor Little will continue looking for ways to support higher education opportunities and workforce development in North Idaho – furthering his goal of making Idaho a place where all can thrive and where our children and grandchildren choose to stay."

Idaho State Board of Education:

"The Office of the State Board of Education has received numerous questions and comments about recent board of trustee’s meetings at North Idaho College (NIC). By statute, Idaho community colleges are governed by locally elected boards of trustees, not the State Board of Education. Although the State Board of Education has statutory authority to approve academic and career-technical education programs offered at NIC, it does not have authority over general governance of the College. Many comments sent to the State Board of Education have expressed concerns about NIC's accreditation. State Board of Education Governing Policy III.M requires all public postsecondary institutions in Idaho to be accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), a federally recognized accrediting body that accredits most public and private postsecondary institutions in the northwest region of the United States, including all Idaho public colleges and universities. All accreditation determinations at all public postsecondary institutions in Idaho, including NIC, are made independently by NWCCU without input, influence, or oversight by the State Board of Education. Idaho public colleges and universities cannot accept the transfer of credits from an unaccredited institution. Students at unaccredited institutions are not eligible for federal financial aid.

The State Board of Education recognizes concerns expressed by the community and will continue to closely monitor developments regarding NIC’s governance and accreditation, and any potential impacts to students, faculty and staff at the College."