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Many have invested in NIC

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | December 24, 2022 1:08 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Tony Stewart knows more than most about thorny property issues in Coeur d’Alene.

In the 1970s, Stewart led the fight to prevent the construction of condos on Yap-Keehn-Um Beach, the 3,400-foot stretch of waterfront adjacent to the North Idaho College campus.

He was a political science instructor at NIC then, the right person in the right place when reporters from the student newspaper showed him the construction plans. He organized an enormous effort to push back.

After years of negotiations, NIC eventually purchased the beach from its previous owner, the Pack River Company, for $260,000. In 2007, the property Stewart worked to save was valued around $50 million.

Most of the funds came from a federal grant, totaling $130,000. The state of Idaho and Kootenai County provided another $75,000 between them and NIC provided $55,000 toward the purchase.

Today, the beach is permanently protected, thanks to the community’s efforts and the legal arguments of the late Scott Reed, an expert in environmental and water law who also helped preserve Tubbs Hill for public use and save the land that is now McEuen Park.

“He was so brilliant,” Stewart said. “He locked it up forever.”

Now Stewart has turned his attention to the ongoing turmoil at NIC. Beyond the enormous impact on students, Stewart said, NIC losing accreditation would create another crisis.

“The legal complications are of a magnitude greater than any in the history of higher education in Idaho,” Stewart said.

Much of NIC’s main campus sits on a tract of land donated to Kootenai County by the Winton Lumber Company for the purpose of developing a public park, public hospital or public educational institution.

The county conveyed the land to the North Idaho Junior College District in August 1941. The property is deed restricted and must be used for public education or a hospital. It cannot be used for commercial purposes.

But the acreage gifted by Winton Lumber Company now only makes up part of the college’s properties.

“The college has bought a tremendous amount of land since then,” Stewart said.

He pointed to the Parker Technical Education Center in Rathdrum as an example.

The 40 acres on which the center sits have no deed restrictions. However, NIC purchased the land at a discount with the understanding that it would be used for education and to support the college’s mission.

In July 2016, the U.S. Economic Development Administration invested $1.3 million in public works funds to purchase equipment to support workforce training programs at the Rathdrum facility.

Similarly, most of the equipment used in the Meyer Health and Sciences Building on NIC’s main campus was paid for with grants from the Idaho Workforce Development Council.

It's unclear what would happen to that equipment and other equipment like it, should the college lose accreditation and potentially fail.

The Idaho State Board of Education has complete control over NIC’s career and technical programs. The board may choose to limit appropriations to the college if it loses accreditation, but there is no precedent for this situation.

“There’s no real framework,” said Mike Keckler, chief communications and legislative affairs officer for the state board. “We just don’t know what would happen.”

It’s also unclear if the state of Idaho would continue to fund an unaccredited institution. The college has three main sources of revenue: Kootenai County property taxes, student tuition and fees and funds appropriated by the state. Those funds mainly comprise dollars collected statewide through income tax and sales tax.

The college owns all buildings on campus, with the exception of the NIC Student Wellness and Recreation Center, which is financed through the Dormitory Housing Commission. The building, developed and planned in concert with NIC's student government at the time, will belong to the college when the bond is paid off. In the meantime, students pay a $180 fee per semester that goes toward the construction financing of the facility.

If student enrollment drops, fees will likely rise in order to satisfy the debt. If the college closes before the debt is paid, ownership of the building would likely revert to US Bank — though the land on which it sits belongs to NIC.

Other properties owned by the college include the Riverbend Workforce Training Center property, which has no deed restrictions, as well as eight residential properties along Military Drive near the main campus.

When the college began purchasing the Military Drive properties, trustees at the time adopted a resolution agreeing the properties would be used in support of NIC’s mission.

Stewart is a founder of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and serves as the group’s secretary.

Last year, the task force — along with its counterparts in Spokane, Bonner and Boundary counties — filed a complaint with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, NIC’s accrediting body.

The task force cited numerous violations of the NWCCU’s eligibility requirements, as well as violations of NIC policy. Stewart said it was with the desire and hope that trustees would take corrective action.

The NWCCU went on to sanction North Idaho College with a warning.

Last week, after a series of chaotic trustee meetings at NIC, the NWCCU sent a letter of warning, giving the college until Jan. 4 to explain how it is not out of compliance with the eligibility requirements and standards for NWCCU accreditation.

“This is really a crisis,” Stewart said. “It’s really serious.”

With NIC’s future uncertain, state-level leaders say they have limited ability to act. Idaho’s community colleges are governed by locally elected boards.

“I think that’s the right way to do it,” Idaho State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich said during the board’s regular meeting Wednesday. “I think that is the right way to do it. We are a local-control state.”

Stewart said he believes it will take action from the Idaho Legislature to protect accreditation for students and prevent numerous “legal nightmares” as different entities that have invested in NIC work out who owns or has rights to what.

“It’s a can of worms,” Stewart said. “There are so many legal arguments. I don’t know how long it would go on because of all these complications.”