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NIC trustee to chair: Resign

by HANNAH NEFF
Staff Writer | March 5, 2022 1:09 AM

The best way forward for North Idaho College is with a new board chair, one trustee said Friday.

Christie Wood, a 17-year veteran of the college's governing board, called on Todd Banducci to resign in the wake of a scathing report on problems at the Coeur d'Alene campus.

The report called for NIC to be put on probation and to bring in the State Board of Education in an oversight capacity.

“Trustee Banducci's continued involvement as a trustee in any role will make any repair to the damaged relationships between the board and the college community all but impossible,” Wood said in a statement. “The board cannot resolve this matter without a major sea change in the leadership of the board.”

It's not the first time Wood has asked Banducci to quit. In January 2021, after what she described as “inappropriate, aggressive or threatening behavior from Trustee Banducci" inflicted on or witnessed by board members, faculty, staff and students, Wood said he needed to go.

“Trustee Banducci has done so much damage in the role of Chair since November of 2020 that he will never be able to regain the trust of our constituent groups on campus,” Wood said.

As reported in a Jan. 20, 2021, Press article, Wood said both she and former trustee Judy Meyer had experienced physically threatening and verbally abusive behavior from Banducci, witnessed by trustee Ken Howard, then-board president Ron Nilson, and college attorney Mark Lyons.

She cited one incident in 2012 when Banducci "pointed his finger at [Wood] and said 'I ought to take you outside right now and kick your ass."

Also reported in the Jan. 20, 2021, article, former NIC President Rick MacLennan, fired from the college without cause last September by the board majority, described his eyewitness account of Banducci's physical assault of a female college employee at a college-sponsored event on Dec. 10, 2019. That description was included in an email provided to The Press through a public records request.

While MacLennan admitted that he had not initially recognized the interaction for what it was, it became clear after "subsequent learning of the intensity of that assault, the verbal assault that accompanied it, and the ongoing traumatizing impact it has had on this employee," according to the article.

MacLennan’s email said that account, and others, had been reported throughout Banducci's time at NIC, according to the article.

Banducci did not respond Friday to a request for comment. NIC public information officer Laura Rumpler said he was away on National Guard duty, and her effort to contact him was unsuccessful as he doesn’t have access to email and is rarely available by phone while on duty.

The vote to fire MacLennan without cause resulted in the college paying almost $500,000 to the former president, about half due to an agreement in his contract and the other half received through a lawsuit.

The board also authorized $180,000 to pay interim president Michael Sebaaly. Wood said another $40,000 was authorized for a consultant to assist with the search for a permanent president.

The recommendation for the college to be put on probation was included in a report drafted by a panel representing NIC’s accrediting organization, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The panel report followed a site visit by the NWCCU representatives, sparked by a second complaint over actions of the NIC board of trustees sent in March.

The first complaint was sent to the NWCCU on Nov. 1 by the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and Spokane, Bonner and Boundary County Human Rights Task Forces. Follow-up letters were sent on Aug. 26 and Sept. 10.

The task forces initially cited the actions of Banducci and trustees Greg McKenzie and Michael Barnes, calling their actions “counter to civil and human rights and civil liberties protected by the United States Constitution, Federal laws, Idaho laws and NIC policies for all NIC employees and students."

According to a statement from the task forces, while they found no pleasure in challenging the inappropriate actions at NIC, it was and is their wish for NIC to correct the wrongs and return to its true mission.

Tony Stewart, a founding member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and former NIC political science professor, said they are pleased with how seriously the review panel took their complaints. He said the panel report sends an important message that there are things a college must do to meet the standards and requirements accreditation requires.

“It needs to be a corrective action,” Stewart said Friday.

Howard said the recommendation for probation did not surprise him.

“I think it’s something we needed to see,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of difficulties. NIC was on a path for years of accreditation and glowing reviews about its performance and now we’ve been on a pathway of having our accreditation threatened ever since the new board members have gotten involved.”

Howard said the board has been dysfunctional ever since shortly after the election in November of 2020 when vice chair McKenzie and former board member Barnes took on their trustee roles, and Banducci was elevated to the position of board chair.

Barnes resigned on Jan. 12 when faced with a potential lawsuit over his claims of legally residing in Zone 5.

Howard said the immediate recommendations for the board in the report, including to review and affirm institutional policies, are not new, yet the trustees haven’t properly addressed them.

He said although he, for one, would make every effort to follow the recommendations, the board is currently voting on motions with a 2-2 split, and there has been very little agreement on important issues.

Howard said with that experience, and with his experience co-chairing the presidential search with Banducci, plus running into difficulties moving forward because of the disagreements, he doesn’t envision a lot of changes in a positive way.

However, Howard said he does hope for improvement once a new trustee joins the board to fill in the vacancy for Zone 5. Eleven candidates applied for the position, and nine responded to questions sent out by trustees to help determine the finalists.

“I think the fact we had that many people with an interest is encouraging,” Howard said. “Now the question is going to be can four trustees settle on one new trustee, and there’s quite a variation in the applications.”

Trustees will discuss the responses and select finalists at a special meeting on Tuesday.

“The path that we’re on is solely the fault and the responsibility of the trustees,” Howard said.

Howard said faculty, staff and members of the community have continued to rise to the challenge and support the mission of the college, as reflected by multiple compliments included in the panel report.

“The faculty and staff should be congratulated that through these difficult times, they continue to do what they do best,” Howard said.

Stewart said that for almost 90 years, North Idaho College has been a wonderful college and a beacon for excellence in education. He said that was damaged by the decisions of the three-person majority on the board.

“It has been heartbreaking to see these inappropriate, incorrect actions that took place,” Stewart said. “I would imagine that the employees and students, and the communities will find some comfort in the fact that they have to correct some of the actions they’ve taken.”

Sarah Martin, chair of NIC’s staff assembly, asked how many times policies and accreditation standards had to be violated before the board realized the impacts. Martin pointed to the board's violations of NIC policies and their disregard of true participatory governance of constituency groups.

“Enough is enough,” Martin said Friday. “NIC deserves better. The students, staff, faculty and community deserve better.”

Libbi Barrett, assistant superintendent for Secondary Education and Curriculum in the Coeur d’Alene School District, said they greatly value their long-standing relationship with the college and are disappointed with the proposed probationary status.

“I feel confident, however, that NIC’s board and administration have the capacity and will to do whatever it takes to right the ship,” Barrett said.

NIC is the No. 1 destination for the district’s graduates, and as of last August, almost 1,500 Coeur d’Alene School District graduates were attending the college.

NIC student Nick Fernham said he’s worried about future students.

“North Idaho College is an awesome school, and has an excellent science department,” Fernham said. “It would be terrible to see the place go unaccredited.”

NIC student Ciara Platt said she wished more students and faculty on campus were involved in the issue as it feels as though they're afraid to speak up. She said the reality is the board of trustees remains dysfunctional due to outside politics from the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee leaking in.

Trustees McKenzie and Barnes were endorsed by the KCRCC in the November 2020 election.

“This issue will continue to go unaddressed until the students on campus become more involved and stand up for the college during these times,” Platt said. “Political opinions and lack of critical thinking serves no purpose in an educational institution.”

In her statement, Wood said McKenzie needs to set aside his close friendship with Banducci and support the remaining board members to begin a course correction to ensure the future of NIC.

Currently, all three dean positions at the college are filled with interims, and Rumpler said finalist interviews for the permanent positions will be happening in the next couple weeks. The three vice president positions are also filled with two interims, one overseeing two positions in an interim provost position.

“It is time for Trustees to fully cooperate and look to the NWCCU and the Idaho State Board of Education for help and guidance to ensure we are in compliance with all educational standards,” Wood said. “Anything less as indicated by the NWCCU panel report puts the college at risk in moving from a probationary status to an actual loss of accreditation.”

McKenzie did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

With the date yet to be determined, Sebaaly and NIC accreditation liaison officer Steve Kurtz will give a prepared response to the panel report and meet with the NWCCU executive commission soon.

Sebaaly said he met with senior leadership on Friday to begin working on responding to many parts of the panel report and working forward in helping the NWCCU through the process. He said their response will definitely play a part in the NWCCU commission’s decision, along with the meeting.

“I would just ask campus and the community to be patient as we allow the NWCCU to go through the process," Sebaaly said.

After the NWCCU evaluates the final peer report and reviews the response, their Board of Commissioners will vote on recommendations and actions.

NIC will be informed of the NWCCU’s decision in a letter of action, the final statement, within 10 days of their vote.

Sebaaly estimated receiving the letter of action by late March or early April.

The final report can be viewed here.

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Wood

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Banducci

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Tony Stewart

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Howard

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Sebaaly

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McKenzie

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