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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Wood giving up her seat as a trustee to protect NIC from ‘Biff’ the board president

UPDATED: Wed., April 20, 2022

North Idaho College Trustees Christie Wood and Ken Howard have announced plans to step down in May.  (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)
North Idaho College Trustees Christie Wood and Ken Howard have announced plans to step down in May. (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)

After 18 years, it was not the way Christie Wood imagined departing from the North Idaho College Board of Trustees.

Wood has spent a lot of time in the past couple of years spearheading efforts to excise an aggressive cancer on the board, centered around the mismanagement, incompetence and ideological extremism of board president Todd Banducci.

The Banducci era has put the college’s accreditation, finances and reputation at serious risk. Following an investigation into a broad range of complaints, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities recently issued a warning to NIC, and placed blame almost entirely for problems directly related to Banducci.

Along the way, Wood and fellow trustee Ken Howard have attempted to act as a counterweight. But with the board now deadlocked 2-2, and with two of those members – Banducci and yes-man Greg McKenzie – sending clear signals that they are unwilling to fix the problem (given that they are the problem), Wood did the only thing she could think of to try and move NIC forward.

She quit, along with Howard.

They’ll resign from the board after the May 3 meeting. They aren’t giving up, though. The resignations will leave the board without a quorum, which clears the way for the state Board of Education to name three new members – the hope being that these three new members will comprise a new, competent, decent majority that can drive the college out of the ditch.

“It was not the way I wanted to go,” said Wood. “I am really attached to the college and I care deeply for it. You don’t want to go out that way.”

In ordinary times, she might have hoped for a departure like that of longtime NIC trustee Judy Meyer, who served for 22 years, retired in 2017 and was named the first emeritus member of the board.

When she and Howard leave, they’ll be taking 30 years of combined board experience with them.

“I was sad, but I understood what had to be done,” Wood said. “It’s the only way right now. It’s the only way.”

The sacrifice they are making may save the school.

That’s the hope of the many people in the region who have been dismayed by the Banducci reign – from the staff and faculty at the school, to the tribes and chambers of commerce, to the many in the community who prize having a good college in town, and not some indoctrination factory for the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

Naturally, Banducci referred to the resignations in a public statement as “undermining … the mission of the college.”

Unlike most of the hyper-conservative ideologues who now dominate politics in Kootenai County, Wood has a long resume of public service in Coeur d’Alene. A political independent, she was city cop for 26 years, retiring as a sergeant in 2015. For many years, she was the public face of the department, as the public information officer.

She was on the school board for eight years, she’s now serving on the City Council and the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.

She was elected to the NIC board in 2004, and was board chair when Banducci joined in 2012. It immediately became clear, she said, that his personal style and behavior were a problem – he was gruff and confrontational, pointedly ideological, uninformed about how much direct control he could exert over college operations.

“I was stunned at how he behaved toward me,” Wood said, referring to an incident from 2012 that was a harbinger of things to come. “When he stood up and pointed his finger at me and said he ought to take me outside and kick my ass – I was stunned because we were having a simple policy discussion.”

A bully, in other words.

Drawing on a comparison from “Back to the Future,” Wood said, “He’s Biff, most of the time. He’s Biff, with a partisan bent.”

She said he began to recruit fellow travelers from within the KCRCC – which veers so hard to the right that it spins in circles – and put up a slate of them in the 2020 election.

She recalls him telling her before the election: “ ‘You know, if my two guys get elected, you’re going to see some changes. … You’ll see. You’ll see what you’ll have to deal with.’ Well, he wasn’t kidding.”

The negative consequences wrought by that new majority have been extensively documented, in complaints from four regional human-rights organizations, news coverage, and the accreditation reports themselves. They fired the popular president, and cost the college a half-million in a settlement of the subsequent lawsuit. They elevated the unqualified wrestling coach to the interim presidency in a sham hiring process.

Along the way, Banducci has Biffed it up outrageously. He criticized the former president’s wife for supposedly supporting Hillary Clinton, confronted an employee about a political donation, got involved in a petty issue involving a student who felt he was suffering from bias against conservatives because he received an A-minus, complained that a student had omitted “under God” from the pledge of allegiance …

In addition, he settled a complaint of physical assault against a staff member. (Wood cannot discuss the details of the incident, but was unequivocal that “it was absolutely a physical assault.”)

The NWCCU has been clear that the threat to NIC comes from the board itself – Banducci and McKenzie – and it praised staff, faculty and administrators at the school. As the chorus of concerns about the board’s mismanagement has grown thunderous, Banducci has resisted calls to resign.

Now the state Board of Education needs to protect NIC from its remnant of a board, at least until an election this fall.

It wasn’t how Wood wanted it to end, but she saw it as the only choice.

“It’s not about me or whether I’m an evil liberal,” she said. “We’re trying to save the college.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Christie Wood’s last name and to correctly characterize the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities’s actions against NIC. 

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