YouTube/North Idaho College
December was a whirlwind month for members of the North Idaho College Board of Trustees. They held four meetings, admitted three violations of open meetings laws, faced two lawsuits and named a new interim president after abruptly placing President Nick Swayne on administrative leave.
The board’s rapid-fire actions did not go unnoticed by North Idaho’s accreditor. NIC received a letter in mid-December from the Northwest Commission on College and Universities noting that recent board actions have undermined the institution’s progress on meeting goals outlined in a previous warning about the lack of governing norms that left the community college in a state of administrative chaos.
The Idaho State Board of Education has also weighed in, with President Kurt Liebich expressing concern about the accreditation issues and urging trustees to take them seriously.
Facing the Public
After three contentious board meetings, NIC’s elected trustees faced a group of angry constituents in the public comments portion of its fourth meeting, on Dec. 21, where critics blamed a faction of the board for placing the college’s accreditation in jeopardy. The outraged crowd demanded answers from trustees Todd Banducci, Greg McKenzie and Mike Waggoner, the majority bloc on a five-member board that hired a new college attorney without a bid process, froze executive hiring, placed Swayne on administrative leave for unclear reasons and installed a handpicked interim president.
“Why are you doing this?” members of the public asked the trustees, who used their newfound majority power to force change at breakneck speed.
It was clear from the comments that some saw a hyperconservative faction of the board waging war against “wokeness” at the college. One NIC employee told the board, “We are not deep state,” referring to a popular conservative conspiracy theory that liberals are secretly working to seize control of institutions. Another resident asked trustees not to punish NIC for “the sins” of other colleges, an apparent nod to the broader conservative backlash against liberal higher education.
“We don’t have a bunch of communists or anti-Christian people on staff at North Idaho College. Don’t try to put the sins of Yale and Princeton and Harvard on North Idaho College,” the speaker told the Board of Trustees, emphasizing that “everybody is mad because we’re suspicious.”
While the majority of speakers took issue with the board members’ actions, a small contingent expressed support, including known white nationalist Vincent James Foxx. (Foxx later bragged in a livestream about calling a North Idaho student an antigay slur at the meeting.) Some supporters stressed the need for conservative ideals in the world of liberal academe, emphasizing that they trusted Banducci, McKenzie and Waggoner to lead NIC down the right path.
The board also received three votes of no confidence from various groups on campus, including the NIC Faculty Assembly, which also emphasized its support for Swayne. Upon reading the statement of no confidence as part of a faculty report, Faculty Assembly chair Ben Tschida declined to answer any questions “given the culture that this board has created.”
Multiple NIC employees echoed concerns about that culture, which they said had led to constant administrative turnover, diminished employee morale, student concerns about the potential loss of accreditation and hostility from trustees toward NIC employees.
What’s at Stake
During the comments section of the meeting, the public was especially focused on the potential loss of accreditation and the suspension of Swayne, who was just hired in July. And at North Idaho College, accreditation concerns have been tied directly to board behavior. NWCCU’s warnings to NIC have focused largely on board governance and the need to maintain top administrative staff. NIC trustees fired President Rick MacLennan without cause in 2021, later paying out more than $500,000 when he sued. Last month it sidelined Swayne and hired Greg South as interim president on a contract that includes a $35,000 hiring bonus and a $235,000 annual salary, according to contract details revealed by trustees who questioned the hire during the meeting.
South’s salary amounts to $5,000 more a year than Swayne’s, whose compensation Banducci and McKenzie had argued was too high when it was proposed during his search.
Commenters at the Dec. 21 meeting also blasted the board for violating open meeting laws. While NIC board chair McKenzie acknowledged that trustees had broken such laws in prior meetings by introducing and voting on surprise resolutions that were not on the agenda, he noted that Idaho law allowed the board to “cure” those violations. That means members can nullify the previous actions taken, giving them a second chance to consider the attorney it hired without an interview or bid process, the move to suspend hiring for presidential cabinet posts and the decision to place Swayne on administrative leave.
“Admittedly, we could have done this better,” McKenzie said, calling the violations unintentional before leading the board through the process of declaring those unlawful actions null and void.
But given a chance to reverse those decisions in front of an angry crowd, the majority doubled down instead, repeating all three actions at its final meeting of the year. Since the resolutions were published on the agenda, however, those votes do not appear to violate open meeting laws. The board also went one step further, hiring an interim president on a 3-to-2 vote without conducting a formal interview process.
The 3-to-2 split has been consistent since three new board members were elected in November and installed in December, joining holdovers Banducci and McKenzie. The board has seen significant turnover during the past year; one trustee resigned in 2022 amid residency concerns and two others strategically stepped down after constant 2-to-2 deadlocks forced the state to appoint three new members who served until the newly elected members were installed.
Of the three new trustees elected, Waggoner has consistently voted alongside Banducci and McKenzie, while Tarie Zimmerman and Brad Corkill have frequently voiced dissent, questioning the legality and necessity of actions pushed by the majority. That same dynamic was on display at the last meeting, with the two dissenting trustees—often cheered on by the crowd—pushing back as fellow members voted to repeat the actions that have drawn scrutiny.
Zimmerman and Corkill have both questioned the qualifications of Art Macomber, a local real estate attorney hired as NIC’s general counsel without a bid process or interview and at a significantly higher rate than his predecessor. Macomber has also admitted that he authored the surprise resolution—later declared to be a violation of open meetings laws—that led to his sudden hiring. Macomber’s admission came after he previously stated Banducci had written the resolution.
At the Dec. 21 meeting, Zimmerman and Corkill continued their pushback—to audience applause but no avail.
Corkill noted that he has yet to see interim president South’s résumé and questioned the need to hire an interim when NIC has a president, arguing, “This is an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars.”
Corkill—who was traveling and not present at the meeting at which Swayne was placed on leave—also asked for “the exact reason” for sidelining the president and details on an investigation that the board has referenced. Banducci and McKenzie tried to steer the conversation into executive session instead, leading Corkill to remark, “So there’s no answer?”
Zimmerman also raised objections, calling South’s contract “fiscally irresponsible.”
South, who served as NIC’s interim dean of students in the fall 2021 semester, has held administrative posts at multiple stops after spending much of his career in college athletics.
Beyond accreditation concerns, recent actions by NIC trustees also prompted two lawsuits.
Both lawsuits landed on Dec. 16. One was filed by Swayne, arguing that he has not been disciplined by the college and that NIC policy does not allow the board to place the president on administrative leave. It also requested his reinstatement.
Trustees have ignored multiple requests from Inside Higher Ed seeking an explanation for Swayne’s administrative leave. Specific language from the resolution to place Swayne on leave offers little insight, though trustees and Macomber have hinted vaguely at an investigation. An email from Macomber to Swayne, a copy of which was included in Swayne’s lawsuit, noted the president was placed on leave “to facilitate my investigation of certain governance concerns, and or missteps made by others, either of which may impact your position and contract.”
Contacted by phone, the legal firm representing Swayne declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The second lawsuit, filed by former Coeur d’Alene city attorney Mike Gridley, relates to open meetings violations. Gridley, who filed suit as a Kootenai County taxpayer against Banducci, McKenzie, Waggoner and Macomber, has requested that the court nullify any illegal actions undertaken by trustees and bar Macomber from practicing law in the county.
At the Dec. 21 meeting, Gridley scolded the board for actions that will cost the college in court, noting that taxpayer dollars will foot the bill for lawsuits and settlements brought on by the trustees.
“Stop wasting my money,” Gridley said, while also taking swipes at Macomber’s qualifications and his $325-an-hour fee, which is $125 more per hour than his predecessor earned at NIC. Gridley also volunteered to consult for free until NIC can hire a properly vetted general counsel.
Given that the board already invalidated—and then legally reinstated—the actions Gridley is objecting to, it is unclear where his lawsuit against the three trustees and Macomber now stands. However, Kinzo Mihara, an attorney for Gridley, told Inside Higher Ed that the lawsuit remains active. “My client looks forward to having his day in court,” Mihara said.