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North Idaho College responds to accrediting agency’s warning letter after controversial decisions by Board of Trustees

A North Idaho College sign reads “Accredited. Transferable. Affordable.” in Coeur d’Alene.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Decisions by a divided North Idaho College board of trustees over the last month have spurred lawsuits, complaints and further risks of losing accreditation.

In response to new concerns raised by the school’s accrediting agency, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, NIC administrators prepared a 13-page report describing why they believe the institution still meets accreditation requirements.

If the college loses accreditation, it also could lose federal funding and the ability to guarantee students their credits would transfer to another institution.

NIC’s accreditation status has been under scrutiny since complaints about the conduct of the board were first brought in March 2021. The commission issued a formal warning to NIC in April 2022.

The more recent chain of events began when NIC’s longtime legal counsel, Marc Lyons, resigned at the end of November.

“It has become clear that my services are no longer desired by those who will soon hold a majority position with the Board of Trustees,” he wrote in a resignation letter.

In the November election, voters selected Mike Waggoner, Tarie Zimmerman and Brad Corkill to the board. Waggoner, who was backed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, is ideologically aligned with board Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustee Todd Banducci.

Zimmerman and Corkill were supported by the moderate Friends of NIC political action committee and the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce.

After the three new members were seated, the board voted 3-2 to hire former state attorney general candidate and local real estate attorney Art Macomber as the college’s new legal counsel.

Just three days later, the board placed NIC President Nick Swayne on administrative leave based on Macomber’s recommendation to investigate the terms of the president’s contract.

Swayne had been hired in June to fill a vacancy after the board fired the previous president, Rick MacLennan, in September 2021. Banducci and McKenzie both voted to fire MacLennan and against hiring Swayne.

Michael Sebaaly, an NIC wrestling coach who served as interim president from the time MacLennan left and Swayne was hired, declined an offer to return as acting president, the board announced Dec. 10. Sebaaly resigned as coach in September a few weeks after being placed on administrative leave.

The move to put Swayne on leave triggered a backlash.

The student, faculty and staff associations at NIC each passed votes of no confidence in the board.

Swayne sued NIC in Kootenai County District Court, arguing that per his contract, he can only be placed on administrative leave if he decides to terminate his own employment agreement and after he provides a 60-day notice.

Then, acting as an individual taxpayer, former Coeur d’Alene city attorney Mike Gridley sued Macomber and the three board members who voted to put Swayne on leave.

The second lawsuit accuses them of fraud and violations of Idaho’s open meeting laws at three early December board meetings by introducing resolutions without prior public notice.

Gridley also filed a grievance against Macomber with the Idaho State Bar, claiming he violated a rule against continuing to practice law in the same geographic area after selling a law firm, making him ineligible to represent NIC.

Meanwhile, Moody’s Investor Service placed NIC’s bond ratings under review for downgrade, citing risks from board dysfunction, significant leadership turnover of presidents and board members, the recent litigation and NIC’s risk of losing accreditation.

On Dec. 17, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities issued a letter to NIC stating that the board’s recent actions appear to be out of compliance with numerous eligibility requirements and standards for accreditation. Without referring to specific board actions, the letter lists the requirements that appear to be in violation, including institutional integrity, having a functioning board and employing a full-time chief executive officer.

The letter gave NIC a deadline to respond by Jan. 4.

“This board takes retaining accreditation seriously,” McKenzie, the board chairman, said at a Dec. 21 board meeting.

At that meeting, the board corrected several open-meeting violations by rescinding those actions, including the decision to hire Macomber, only to vote through those same actions again in new motions.

Although NIC administrators Lloyd Duncan and Sarah Garcia had been acting co-CEOs since Swayne was put on leave, the board voted 3-2 to hire Greg South as interim president. South was an interim dean of instruction at NIC in 2021 and was a NIC presidential finalist in 2016.

South’s contract is for $235,000 a year, plus a housing allowance of $3,000 a month, up to $27,000 reimbursement for moving expenses and a sign-on bonus of $35,000, “given the current NIC and community environment.”

His contract will continue “at least until June 30th, 2024, unless terminated.”

Swayne’s salary is $230,000.

In its official response to the accreditation agency’s letter, NIC administrators wrote that the board’s actions during the Dec. 21 meeting addressed the commission’s concerns.

The report stated that “because of pending litigation and because the issue is considered a personnel matter, the college is not at liberty to disclose progress on the current investigation,” into Swayne’s contract.

The administration also requested an opportunity to host the accreditation agency for a campus visit before it considers taking any adverse action.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.