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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

North Idaho College board fires President Rick MacLennan without cause

Rick MacLennan is out as president of North Idaho College.

The North Idaho College Board of Trustees voted 3-2 Wednesday to fire MacLennan, who has served as president since 2016, without cause. His termination will take effect at the end of the day Thursday.

Trustees subsequently moved to name Lita Burns, vice president of instruction, acting president effective Friday. Burns, who noted she has served under four different presidents over the past two decades, appeared surprised by the appointment, which one trustee said was not discussed with her at all before Wednesday’s meeting.

The ouster was spearheaded by members of the board’s majority: board chair Todd Banducci, vice chair Greg McKenzie and trustee Michael Barnes. They did not explain the reasoning for their votes. But the majority publicly sparred with MacLennan repeatedly in the past several months. 

In particular, the board objected to MacLennan deciding to mandate masks on campus as the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases began to overwhelm North Idaho hospitals. Late last month, the board voted 3-2 to take away MacLennan’s power to require masks and revoked the requirement.

The vote to fire MacLennan, like the vote to revoke the mask mandate, was strongly opposed by trustees Christie Wood and Ken Howard. Earlier in the meeting, members of the college’s faculty and staff assemblies formally reiterated their support for MacLennan.

“Staff, faculty has made it clear. They are the boots on the ground here on this campus,” Wood said, “and they find great value in the leadership of Dr. MacLennan, as do I. I think this is a train wreck for the rest of the trustees that we have personal liability that you’re bringing upon us with this motion. It doesn’t make any sense at all to remove this president.”

Wednesday’s tumultuous meeting saw at least one person removed by security.

“Is this what you like, Todd? Chaos?” the woman shouted at Banducci. “You have ruined a great institution!”

MacLennan’s dismissal caps months of strife he’s had with the board majority for nearly a year – particularly Banducci, who has faced complaints from the president and others in the college community of aggressive, unprofessional and threatening behavior.

The complaints have led to an investigation by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities to determine whether the college is still eligible for regional accreditation.

Wood claimed the firing was in retaliation for the complaints.

“You’re going to get us sued, Todd!” Wood shouted at Banducci at one point. “You’re absolutely going to get us sued!”

Before Burns’ appointment, Howard proposed a motion to keep MacLennan on for two months to allow time for a transition process, including the selection of an interim president. It was defeated.

“The fact that there are personality differences is not a reason to dismiss the president,” Howard said. “The president’s job is to run this institution, and he doesn’t have to run it so that everybody likes him. He has to run it so he’s doing a good job. Everything I’ve heard in the remarks … run better than two-to-one in favor of supporting him, and the ones that are against him don’t give any real reason. There seems to be some kind of a political purpose involved this movement to dismiss him. I find that unsettling.”

MacLennan sought an opportunity to comment as the board worked through the motion to fire him. Banducci did not allow him to speak.

“Trustee Banducci, you have bullied me for a long time, and you are doing it again,” MacLennan interjected at one point.

As per his contract, MacLennan will be paid a year’s salary plus benefits. Chris Martin, vice president for finance and business affairs, said the college has MacLennan’s salary budgeted through the end of June; the remainder would have to come out of the college’s unallocated fund balance.

MacLennan’s current salary is $222,692.

According to the board’s meeting agenda, MacLennan’s firing and Burns’ appointment took place under the same broad action item: “President’s Employment.” As with meetings over the past few months, Wednesday’s meeting did not have a public comment period.

“The board has not talked with (Burns) at all,” Wood said. “You cannot just tell her she has to be president and have her work out a classification. It really would behoove this board to understand some state and federal employment laws.”

It’s unclear how Burns’ salary will be affected in her role of acting president.

“No, she’s just going to take on the mantle on a short-term basis as the acting president,” Banducci said when initially asked by Howard how her salary will be affected.

Burns initially requested to discuss the terms of her temporary presidency within the next 24 hours before she actually took the role. After Banducci told her that might not be possible, Burns accepted the role with the stipulation that a meeting is arranged “post haste” to discuss the term of an acting president, the presidential search and whether the college will have an interim president.

“I am serving under my fourth president at North Idaho College in 20 years, so I have witnessed the process for presidential searches,” she said. “I will attest the fact that if you want a really good president, this is not something that can be rushed. This is something that has to be done very thoughtfully and carefully certainly under the guidance of our Board of Trustees, but also with the input of not only our North Idaho College community that is faculty and staff, but also with the community involvement because our president is a president of a community college and has to be well-accepted and integrated into our community in order for us to continue to be successful.”

Her appointment followed a 10-minute after following MacLennan’s firing. The board may have technically had two presidents at one point Wednesday night after appointing Burns effective immediately.

The vote was eventually overridden to allow for MacLennan’s termination to take effect before Burns’ appointment.

The board majority, in a motion proposed by Barnes, then attempted to authorize a presidential search conducted by the Board of Trustees led by Banducci and board attorney Marc Lyons with support from the college administration. Lyons stepped in at that point, recommending another special meeting to discuss the search parameters.

In several meetings leading up to Wednesday, the board had not been able to reach the supermajority needed to enter executive session to discuss matters presumably related to MacLennan’s employment behind closed doors. That continued Wednesday when a scheduled executive session earlier in the afternoon was shot down, much to Banducci’s chagrin.

“You have tried to force conversations outside of executive session that are inappropriate and should not occur, and I will not be baited and drawn into that,” he said.

The vote to appoint Burns was 3-0. Howard qualified his vote, saying he voted in favor “because, quite frankly, we don’t have any other choice.”

Wood abstained.

“No way, Todd. No way,” she warned. “You are absolutely going to get challenged every step of the way if you don’t start following the law.”