The Accreditation Saga at North Idaho College: Part II

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COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – As previously published by the Kootenai Journal, an “objective review of the past three years into the controversy at NIC shows that the college is not at risk of losing accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). By all accounts, the accreditation review is undergoing a standardized process that allows for a lengthy amount of time to address all concerns. There is no record of NWCCU, or any other accrediting institution, removing a college’s accreditation due to non-financial or non-program related issues.”

The Accreditation Saga at North Idaho College: Part I, which was published on January 5, 2024, covered the course of events from September 2020 through the beginning of May 2022. Those events included the original complaints to NWCCU which instigated the accreditation review, the facts surrounding the end of Rick MacLennan’s contract, and the political maneuverings that allowed the state to assert control over the college.

In this article, the history behind who founded an activist group that appears to play a role in the continued accreditation saga will be covered, as well as the six-month time period in which the appointed board majority:

  • Entered into a presidential contract that was unlike any the college had negotiated before.
  • Made a real estate purchase, which included a below market value lease with the former mayor of Coeur d’Alene.
  • Granted Christie Wood emeritus trustee status. 

Part II: Actions taken by the appointed board majority during their six month tenure.

The Idaho State Board of Education appointed David Wold, John Goedde, and Pete Broschet on May 6, 2022, after the resignations of both Christie Wood and Ken Howard left the board with only two trustees as Micheal Barnes had previously resigned and his seat had not been replaced. 

On Friday, May 13, 2022, a special meeting was called to order by NIC board chair Todd Banducci in order to restructure the board. The restructure removed the two elected trustees, Banducci and Greg McKenzie, from their roles on the board. Through board nomination and vote, the three appointed trustees assigned themselves all of the board roles, Goedde was placed as vice chair, Broschet as secretary/treasurer, and Wold as the chair of the board. It also placed Broschet as the co-chair of the presidential search committee, and Goedde in charge of the compensation parameters for presidential candidates. The NIC board had previously commissioned a presidential search committee headed by consultant Angela Provart. It was reported that over twenty-five bona fide candidates had applied for the position. The board chair was given authority to work with the administration and Provart to set dates and times for board interviews with the candidates. Records show that informal dinner interviews arranged by Wold were not uniformly applied to all candidates, nor were all trustees present. This informal process became a matter of contention amongst the trustees.

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At the same meeting, Banducci addressed concerns that had been raised over a non-renewal decision issued by Idaho County Risk Management Program (ICRMP), the entity that was providing the property and casualty insurance to the college. Referencing a speculative article about the situation that was published on the front page of a local newspaper, Banducci made public the loss that ICRMP held, which included damages from a wind storm that accounted for over $1.5 million of the total $2.3 million figure. He also disclosed that the majority of the rest of $2.3 million loss was under MacLennan’s administration of the college’s operations, including an EEOC complaint, whistleblower discrimination, retaliation misconduct, IHRC retaliation discrimination, a disability claim, and alleged wrongful advice for advisors.

Todd Banducci discusses the details about the non-renewal decision by ICRMP at the NIC board meeting on May 13, 2022.

These are all personnel complaints that are not within the purview of the board of trustees and solely the responsibility of the college’s president. Banducci highlighted that there had been no personnel claims under interim president Dr. Michael Sebaaly. Only ten percent of the $2.3 million insurance loss was within the control of the trustees, and that was the payout to settle the lawsuit MacLennan brought after the board ended his contract without cause. Many would argue it was well worth the expense based on MacLennan’s alleged mismanagement and declining enrollment numbers. It is worth reiterating that the refusal by Wood and Howard to enter into executive session to conduct MacLennan’s evaluation placed the college in the untenable position of being unable to end the president’s contract with cause and opened the door to his lawsuit. Sources within the college say the current insurance company is not pleased about their risk exposure stemming from trustees Tarie Zimmerman and Brad Corkill repeated refusals to enter into an executive session to handle personnel and legal matters.

Copy of ICRMP loss report handed out by Banducci at NIC board meeting on May 13, 2022.

Banducci also stated the claims that ICRMP refused to work with the NIC board, which were asserted by Wood in the published article, were completely false. He explained how he spoke with the ICRMP attorney on a regular basis for over two months on how to proceed and the ICRMP report can validate his statements. “I want the people to know that this [article] is wrong,” stated Banducci at the meeting. “We just need to set the record straight … journalist integrity and honesty would be helpful.” Banducci concluded by requesting that the media “please stop using the old, incorrect information,” once things have been repudiated and they have been given correct information. Banducci, who is a licensed insurance agent, provided copies of the insurance information to attendees at the meeting.

Goedde objected to Banducci releasing details of the insurance loss figures, asserting it was confidential and should remain so. It is unclear why Goedde did not want full transparency with the public, especially when it involved correcting inaccurate information that had been published that directly impacted the college’s reputation. 

Since Goedde plays a key role in the policy decisions and contracts made by the NIC board majority, it is important to note that Goedde was a founding member of SaveNIC. According to documents filed with the Idaho Secretary of State, SaveNIC, Inc., incorporated on January 19, 2022, five months before Goedde was appointed by the state as a trustee. Goedde is listed as an initial director of the board, along with Christa Hazel and Jim Coleman. Coleman was also listed as a director of the North Idaho College Foundation, Inc., on its annual report dated October 12, 2022.

SaveNIC calls itself “a social welfare organization” and filed with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(4). In its articles of incorporation, it claims the purpose of the entity is “to communicate on public policy issues and advocate for the benefit of the North Idaho College community.” Hazel, who is a regular attendee at NIC meetings and an outspoken critic of the local Republican party and many elected Republican officials in Idaho, seems to engage in blatant political activism using the SaveNIC branding. In her role with SaveNIC, Hazel “live tweets” many NIC board functions, which are heavy on politics and light on social welfare advocacy. The public activism of the SaveNIC group appears to be one of the most prolific in spreading the “doom and gloom” narrative about NIC’s accreditation status.

As a founding member of the activist SaveNIC group, it is difficult to discern how the state considered Goedde the best option for appointment to the board. As previously reported, Goedde was also involved in back-channel communications with the Idaho State Board of Education (SBOE) before the resignation of Wood and Howard, which raised concerns of a coordinated effort to undermine NIC’s independent governance. SBOE Chief Communications Officer Mike Keckler said the department cannot recall whether Goedde’s position on the board of SaveNIC was known to them at time of the appointment, and that candidate resumes were the focus during the selection process.

Within six weeks of being appointed, Goedde, Wold, and Broschet hired Dr. Dominic “Nick” Swayne on June 22, 2022, without deliberating on the four finalists whom the board had recently interviewed. Sources with intimate knowledge of the circumstances say that Chair Wold called other trustees before the meeting to get their “opinions,” which demonstrates deliberations outside of the proper structure. At the onset of the first candidate interview, Goedde specifically clarified with Chair Wold that only questions were to be asked of candidates during the interviews, and no deliberations were to take place. Goedde said, “It was my understanding that we had a set of questions that we were going to ask each candidate, and we were going to listen to their answers. I was not aware of any deliberations on the agenda, or any intent for deliberation on an individual candidate. Am I correct in that?” Wold replied, “Yes, I think you’re correct.” This interaction, along with the public records and meeting minutes, shows that the NIC board never entered into executive session to discuss the merits of each candidate before voting to hire Swayne. 

Banducci and McKenzie had questions about the process, saying one candidate got an informal dinner interview with certain trustees that was not offered to other candidates, raising concerns of equal treatment. Additionally, there were reports that some candidates were given tours of different parts of the NIC campus and extension facilities than other candidates, restricting their ability to answer some interview questions. “The process itself, the inconsistencies provided an unfair advantage or disadvantages to the different candidates, depending on when their tour was, whether they had a dinner or not, and who was there,” stated Banducci at the June 22, 2022 board meeting.

According to a member of the presidential search committee, the top five finalists were all qualified for the job, and it is perplexing why the appointed board rushed the final part of the selection. The committee member said they had spent months working to narrow down the candidate finalists, and a serious, deliberative review by the board of the final candidates would have placed the college in the best possible position. 

The conditions of employment set forth in the contract with Swayne, raised additional concerns. Specifically, the language in Section 12.1, which addressed how the contract could be terminated, was changed from “by either party without cause” to “by the President without cause.” This modification in contract language was made and approved by the appointed trustees after the contract had been signed by Swayne on July 15, 2022. It remains unclear how the lack of an at-will provision is in the best interests of the college, and it does not appear that former presidential contracts were written with this language.

Additionally, the employment contract with Swayne contains Section 12.3 which requires a supermajority of at least four votes to terminate. So the board entered into a contract with a 3-2 vote that cannot be terminated without a 4-1 vote. This provision restricts the board beyond its normal majority decision-making powers. The Kootenai Journal is not aware of any other employment contract made by NIC with such a provision. The contract was made effective through June 20, 2025, virtually ensuring Swayne’s retention through two election cycles. Swayne’s contract has a base salary of $230,000 annually, a $2,500 per month housing allowance, 10 percent retirement contribution, and twenty-four annual vacation days. This means the college pays the president a minimum of $21,167 per month, plus expenses for travel, membership dues to various entities, retirement benefits, and medical benefits.

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As part of its duties and responsibilities, the NIC board has the authority under Idaho Code Section 33-2107 and 33-601 to “designate and purchase property necessary for its educational purposes.” On July 14, 2022, the appointed board majority agreed to accept a $1 million appraisal of real estate located at 705 W. River Avenue, Coeur d’Alene, otherwise known as Fort Ground Grill, and authorized the purchase of the property for $1 million. The sellers were the former mayor of Coeur d’Alene, Steven D. Widmyer, and his wife Marie Widmyer.

The Fort Ground Grill purchase raised eyebrows for multiple reasons. First, the board was only given a summary of the appraisal instead of the full report, which was held by NIC legal counsel Marc Lyons. Second, the appraised value included the liquor license, even though the license would not transfer to NIC and the assessed property value was only $385,317 in 2021. Third, the college bought a property that does not appear “necessary for the operation of the school district” per Idaho law. Fourth, the college purchased the property at the height of the real estate market. Finally, the real estate sales contract included a possession/lease provision. This established a $1,200 per month lease rate for Fort Ground Grill to Cougar Bay, Inc., owned by Widmyer. Interestingly, the tenant portion of the real estate sales contract was signed and dated on June 21, 2022, prior to the board’s 3-2 vote to purchase the property.

When constituent Ron Hartman made a public comment at a board meeting on September 28, 2022, he pointed out the lease contract signed with Widmyer was well-below the $5,800 per month appraisal by Valbridge Property Advisors, which had projected rental income at $69,552 annually. NIC legal counsel Marc Lyons tried to stop his public comment, claiming the comment was not based on an agenda item and not an “appropriate” public comment. McKenzie stated he wanted to hear what was being said and spoke directly to Lyons, “Let’s let the chair run the meeting. You’re the lawyer, be quiet.” Shortly after Hartman brought attention to the matter, the college announced they had issued a 60-day notice to terminate the lease with Widmyer. Hartman ran for NIC trustee in zone one in the November 2022 election, losing by 3.18 percent to Tarie Zimmerman.

Another real estate purchase of a small house on Military Drive near the college campus was also finalized during the appointed trustees’ majority control. Additionally, Goedde moved to give Christie Wood emeritus trustee status on September 28, 2022, and the board majority passed the motion 3-2 over the objections of the elected trustees. This move has been viewed by many in the community as a slap-in-the-face given the circumstances of Wood’s resignation, her organization’s complaints against NIC which started the accreditation review process, and her published misrepresentation of the insurance coverage issue.

It is notable that there are no records of official communications to NIC from NWCCU between April 2, 2022, and the November 2022 election, nor did the Kootenai County Human Task Force on Human Relations, of which Wood is president, file any additional complaints while the appointed trustees controlled the NIC board. This lends credence to the belief held by many that some organizations and individuals use the college’s accreditation as a political tool.

The next article in this series will cover events at NIC starting in November 2022, including the paid-administrative leave of Swayne, the injunction by the court to reinstate Swayne, and the accreditation progress.