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Judge considers injunction in Swayne’s lawsuit

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | February 25, 2023 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — North Idaho College President Nick Swayne revealed in court Friday that a college trustee signaled an intention to remove him from his position months before the board placed him on administrative leave for no disciplinary reason.

“Just wait, you only have 52 days left,” NIC Trustee Todd Banducci reportedly told Swayne via email in September 2022, referring to the November election when three new trustees would be elected. The Press has requested a copy of the email from North Idaho College.

“It appeared to be communicating a threat,” Swayne said. “As soon as the election happens, you may be gone.”

Swayne disclosed that information during a hearing in which a Kootenai County judge considered whether to grant a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit filed by Swayne against NIC, which seeks his reinstatement to perform his duties as the college's president.

If Judge Cynthia Meyer grants the injunction, NIC would be prohibited from making major administrative or operational changes before Swayne’s lawsuit is resolved.

In his testimony, Swayne said recent and ongoing changes at NIC will likely negatively impact his ability to fulfill his duties in operating the college.

These changes include hiring Greg South as the college’s interim president and giving him an 18-month contract with no provision for what happens if Swayne returns from leave.

South has filled senior administrative positions, which trustees barred Swayne from doing shortly before placing him on leave. The board has tasked South with research on changing NIC’s athletic conference, adding women’s wrestling and evaluating the status and pay of coaches.

“I came in and built relationships during my first five months,” Swayne said. “I made promises and put my integrity on the line.”

Those relationships — with staff and students, with school administrators and guidance counselors throughout the region, with community leaders and other stakeholders — are at the core of what a community college president does. They are not easily or quickly rebuilt once they erode, Swayne said.

If and when Swayne is restored to his position, he will essentially be starting from scratch, he said.

He may return to find a president’s cabinet containing employees he had no hand in hiring, strategic plans he didn’t weigh in on, contracts and agreements he didn’t make and a budget overextended by up to $2 million because of an athletics conference change he did not recommend.

“Everything that is happening at the college now that I have to fix is a cost to me personally,” Swayne said.

He said he has received no information or updates on the investigation into his contract that was cited as the reason for placing him on leave, though he has received several emails from college attorney Art Macomber, which reiterated that Swayne has not been accused of any misconduct.

Swayne said the emails from Macomber include one dated Jan. 26 that forbade Swayne from communicating about any college matters with Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Shon Hocker or with the media.

“He has freedom of speech, but that freedom has costs,” Macomber reportedly wrote, in reference to Swayne.

The Press has also requested a copy of that email from North Idaho College.

Swayne’s attorney, Tara Malek, said in court that the recent show cause sanction issued by NIC’s accreditor, triggered in part by the board placing Swayne on leave, casts a long shadow. If North Idaho College loses accreditation, it will be the first college in the western U.S. to do so.

“Dr. Swayne didn’t come in to be president of a college that is unaccredited,” Malek said. “That will be a stain on Dr. Swayne, as well.”

Attorney Bret Walther, arguing on behalf of NIC, said the sanction has not damaged Swayne’s professional reputation.

“It’s universally agreed that everything that’s going on at the college is being blamed on the board,” Walther said.

If returning to a college in chaos puts Swayne in a difficult position or makes his job challenging to perform, Walther said, he has another option.

“He has the right to resign and move on,” Walther said. “When you take a job, there’s no guarantee it will go well at all times.”

Walther argued that Idaho law does not state that a college can’t hire more than one president and that Swayne has no inherent right to perform his job duties.

“He does not have a right to be installed as president and serve as president against the board’s will,” Walther said.

After hearing evidence and arguments, Judge Meyer said Friday that she will take the matter under advisement and issue a written decision.

“I do anticipate it will be sooner rather than later,” she said.