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MY TURN: Don't forget the students; reinstate Swayne

by STEVE WIDMYER/Guest Opinion
| January 4, 2023 1:00 AM

The last couple of years have been challenging for all of us.

In particular, it's been an extremely difficult time at North Idaho College. I am not going to go down the path of disparaging anyone personally. I don't feel that is the way to solve the problems at North Idaho College. What I want to communicate about are the forgotten individuals at North Idaho College and the decisions that have been made that can potentially be so damaging to them and our entire community.

My experience at North Idaho College dates back to the late 1960s and '70s when Hall of Fame Coach Rolly Williams coached the men's basketball team. My mom would drop me off at the gym so I could watch Steve Willis, Charlie Rose and many other players I loved watching. At that time, NIC was really the only avenue for cultural diversity in Kootenai County. Rolly was able to help provide opportunities for young African American students through his program. We should all be very grateful to Rolly for having the courage to provide those opportunities. We should also admire the strength of those young African American men to come to our community. I'm sure they faced challenges.

Those opportunities exist today and I hope will continue. But we risk losing them.

My experience at NIC continued as a high school grad. NIC was really my only college opportunity at the time. As with many high school grads, NIC provided me an education at the only cost I could fit in my budget. I'm not sure of the path I would have gone down if not for NIC. I proudly graduated from NIC in 1980. North Idaho College is a special place to me.

Now to the forgotten ones. NIC exists for one reason — students. Students pay for 20.5% or over $10.6 million of the budget. Yet they go unheard. They have spoken at several meetings and have issued public statements. Their voices have been apparently disregarded as unimportant. In context, the state of Idaho pays 40.24% and Kootenai County taxpayers pay 34.1%. So many have financial "skin in the game." None more on an individual basis than NIC students. They deserve to be heard.

Next up: Decisions. I was an NIC trustee in 1997. I voted as part of a unanimous decision to not renew the contract of the NIC president. My vote was a mistake. I was a new trustee and my vote was not in the best interest of NIC, the students or the community. I should have thought more of what the impact of my vote was. I was wrong. The only positive thing that came out of that vote was that I learned a valuable lesson. I needed to think through all of the ramifications of decisions that I make, particularly those that involve the public. I believe that mistake helped me make better decisions during my eight years as mayor of Coeur d'Alene starting in 2014.

Bad NIC Decision No. 1:

Firing President Rick MacLennan without cause. In other words, no reason was given. Students voiced strong support for Dr. MacLennan. Their voices were not heard. Dr. MacLennan was paid $249,971 for a full year of service. This was paid with student and taxpayer money. In addition, Dr. MacLennan received another $250,000 from NIC's insurance company to settle a lawsuit filed because of the firing. Over $500,000 paid out. Why?

Bad NIC Decision No. 2:

Hiring the wrestling coach, Mike Sebaaly, as interim president. This is in no way a knock against Dr. Sebaaly. I only know him from his bio. But he did not possess the experience or qualifications necessary for this job. This put Dr. Sebaaly in a difficult position. An administrator with decades of experience would have a tough time navigating this situation. Dr. Sebaaly was put in a no-win situation that further eroded the public's trust.

Bad NIC Decision No. 3:

NIC trustees vote 3-2 to put President Nick Swayne on administrative leave. Dr. Swayne began serving as the new NIC president Aug. 1, 2022. He was placed on leave "pending an investigation" Dec. 9, 2022, just four months after starting the job. Why? Considering bad decisions No.s 1 and 2, it would make one wonder what in the world is going on here.

Dr. Swayne's experience? He served our country for 26 years in the U.S. Army and was deployed across Europe and the Middle East. He retired as a lieutenant colonel! That's leadership! He also has extensive experience in educational leadership. We should be grateful to have a University of Idaho grad with these qualifications lead North Idaho College.

Now a decision was made to hire another interim, pay him $235,000 a year, with a $35,000 signing bonus and a $27,000 moving allowance. This doesn't sound like a short-term stay! This sounds like a done deal. What about the "pending investigation"? Is that just a made-up deal? Once again, we have another lawsuit, this time by Dr. Swayne. I don't blame him.

These bad decisions add up to a serious threat against accreditation. NIC could lose it. NIC has already been warned. Without accreditation, we don't have a college. Credits earned don't transfer, workforce training is uncertified, dual enrollment ends and a wonderful community college doesn't exist.

There are those that don't care. I've seen comments "tear it down." There are others that say the loss of accreditation is a hoax. I'm saying it's real. With the loss of accreditation comes the loss of opportunities for those I previously mentioned, including 18-year-olds like me in 1978, when NIC gave me a chance for a bright future.

The solution? Reinstate Dr. Swayne. I'm asking the trustees to vote to do that. I think this lieutenant colonel has the leadership skills to solve the issues and to make North Idaho College a place we are all proud of.

Do this for those that have so far been forgotten.

Do it for the students.


Steve Widmyer is a Coeur d'Alene resident and the city's former mayor.