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Legislators press South on accreditation, finances

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | January 27, 2023 1:08 AM

Idaho legislators pressed North Idaho College Interim President Greg South on issues threatening the school’s accreditation in Boise on Thursday morning, when South addressed the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

This is the second year in a row that an interim president has represented NIC at the Statehouse during Education Week, an annual event during each legislative session that provides opportunities for the state’s public college and university leaders to speak to lawmakers who sit on committees that consider issues related to higher education and finance.

While praising NIC’s career and technical education programs and steady tuition rates, South also spoke about the college's accreditation status.

NIC's accrediting organization, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, has been closely monitoring the institution since spring 2021. NWCCU issued a warning in April 2022 requiring the college to resolve governance issues affecting its accreditation eligibility by spring 2023.

“I want to let this committee know that we are fully accredited,” he told Idaho’s budget writers. “We remain fully accredited, and we are working closely with the accrediting commission.”

South said NIC’s 2023 planned budget is $51.7 million, which includes $14.5 million from the state.

Other main sources of revenue for the college are local property taxes and student tuition and fees.

The college’s requests include $7 million for a law enforcement training facility at the Parker Technical Education Campus in Post Falls, as well as funding to offset the increased cost of health insurance.

Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg, asked pointed questions about NIC’s financial situation.

“What happened that the institution lost its insurance and had to go into the private market and purchase a much more expensive private policy, which I don’t believe was anticipated or budgeted for?” she asked.

The Idaho Risk Management Program, or ICRMP, a member-owned local government risk pool that provides insurance coverage for government entities in the state, chose not to renew NIC’s policy last year “due to adverse claims and unsettled environments,” said Sarah Garcia, NIC’s vice president for finance.

Those claims included damages from a January 2021 windstorm that toppled trees and damaged buildings on the NIC campus and $250,000 to former NIC President Rick MacLennan, who sued the college after he was fired without cause. Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, inquired about that settlement during Thursday’s session.

NIC now pays more than $1 million for insurance premiums, according to public records obtained by The Press — around $528,747 for the liability package and $499,800 for commercial property.

NIC previously paid a $310,000 annual premium to ICRMP.

Garcia said she is preparing next year’s budget to accommodate higher insurance premiums.

Raybould also noted a potential credit downgrade affecting $7.9 million in debt. Moody’s Investors Service cited governance issues as the reason for the possible downgrade.

“These are clearly ongoing financial concerns that are going to affect the future operation of this institution,” she said.

Raybould also questioned what might happen if NIC loses accreditation — a situation that would be unprecedented in Idaho.

“Will you be able to continue to enroll students?” she said.

South declined to speculate on that possibility and emphasized that NIC’s accrediting organization, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, is looking to see improvement from the college.

“They don’t want to pull the school’s accreditation,” he said.

Rep. James Petzke, R-Meridian, asked if the ongoing turmoil at NIC has impacted enrollment.

NIC’s enrollment has dropped 9.2% since last year, though the college won’t have a completely accurate picture of enrollment until the end of the month. But that downward trend began a decade ago, South told legislators. In that time, enrollment has dropped 30% overall, he said.

“It’s cumulative,” he said. “It’s convenient to try to say it’s happened in the last couple years. And that’s had some impact, to be sure. But it’s much larger, a more systemic circumstance.”