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Shawn Vestal: Somebody needs to protect NIC from its farcical board majority

North Idaho College trustees Todd Banducci, right, and Greg McKenzie supported the appointment of Head Wrestling Coach Mike Sebaaly as interim president on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.  (Greg Mason/The Spokesman-Review)

If John Owen was never president of North Idaho College, then no wrestling coach ever should be.

Sorry for the deep cut. If you know anything and care anything about NIC – as the current board majority does not – then you know that Owen was a legendary wrestling coach there in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. He won eight national team championships, reached the pinnacle of his profession, and still somehow never found himself in the running to preside over the whole damned institution.

Michael Sebaaly, though, after three years coaching the wrestling team and teaching PE, has so impressed the Three Stooges – NIC Board Chairman Todd Banducci, Vice Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustee Michael Barnes – that they gave him the job of interim president though he’s never held an administrative position of any kind.

If these guys aren’t trying to destroy the college, then what they’re doing makes no sense. If you want a clear picture of what happens when incompetent bullies take over your education system, look no further than the consequences being wrought in Coeur d’Alene by Larry, Moe and Curly.

This board majority has put the school at real risk of losing its accreditation, and the reckless, slapdash hiring of an unqualified interim president seems bound to only deepen that risk. They have brought down a lawsuit upon the school that it seems poised to lose, from the former president they fired after overruling his mask mandate as COVID-19 cases from the delta variant were soaring.

And they have now invited ridicule from every quarter for making a laughingly bad hiring decision at the top – a decision that came with no public process of any kind, after the job requirements were watered down, and in which qualified candidates with administrative experience were ignored.

“Some of these people are just personal acquaintances with the board chair,” said Christie Wood, a board member who has been trying, along with Trustee Ken Howard, to protect the college from the majority.

“The process has been completely corrupted, and it’s been done so by three trustees who had people in mind for the position. It has nothing to do with qualifications to run a higher education institution. It has to do with personal friendships and (political) ideology.”

It’s truly a farce, though not at all amusing.

Now the same four human-rights organizations that first raised public concerns in March about the board – and especially Banducci – are expanding their complaint.

In March, the human rights task forces from Kootenai, Bonner, Boundary and Spokane counties complained about the board violating the civil liberties of students and staff to the Department of Justice and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

“The future of the college was in great peril and we couldn’t just stand by,” said Tony Stewart, a longtime human rights champion, former NIC political scientist and secretary of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.

(Wood is president of the task force, but recuses herself in matters relating to NIC.)

Their letter raised concerns about attacks by Banducci on diversity programs, his overt politicizing of interactions with students and staff, and an allegation of a verbal and physical assault against a student witnessed by former President Rick MacLennan.

The examples of Banducci’s aggressive, bullying behavior – including an instance where he told Wood that his wife is going to slap her – were so out-of-bounds that the board censured him last April.

The NCCU opened an investigation into the complaint, with a deadline to finish by next August. It is looking into whether NIC meets its requirements in three areas: academic freedom, nondiscrimination, and board governance.

As the probe proceeds, NIC and the board have been tasked with taking some interim steps, such as adopting certain board policies and attending workshops to show progress on the areas of concern.

In a letter to the commission at the end of August, the human rights groups raise concerns that the majority “has given only lip service, or even worse, has defied” those commission requirements.

“It gives us no pleasure to reach the conclusion that the new NIC Board majority intends to take advantage of the generous year extended to them by the NWCCU to implement their radical ideology and agenda that will reverse decades of policies based on the protection of civil liberties, civil rights, human rights, and inclusion, not to mention the harm to the governance structure,” the letter reads. “We yet do not realize the extent to which such negative actions will harm and damage the institution.”

The hope behind the filing of the complaint is that the commission can exert pressure on the board to get its act together – or, short of that, that it will place the college under the oversight of the state or another institution.

The risk is that these board members won’t lift a finger to prevent a disastrous result – given how apparent it has become that they simply don’t care about silly things such as the value of credits a student receives at NIC.

However it plays out, the school won’t be safe until control of the board is wrestled away from the Three Stooges.

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