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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Judge orders North Idaho College to reinstate president; board meeting planned Monday

North Idaho College President Nick Swayne is photographed on campus in Coeur d’Alene in August 2022.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

A judge on Friday ordered North Idaho College to reinstate its president, Nick Swayne, who was placed on administrative leave without cause late last year.

“The Board’s majority has wrongfully locked its captain in the brig while steering NIC toward an iceberg,” Judge Cynthia Meyer of Kootenai County District Court wrote in a preliminary injunction, ordering NIC to take Swayne off administrative leave for the duration of Swayne’s lawsuit.

The divided NIC board put Swayne on administrative leave in December under the advice of interim legal counsel Art Macomber in order to “investigate” the terms of Swayne’s contract.

Swayne sued NIC, seeking to be reinstated, arguing that his contract did not allow the board to put him on leave without cause. Swayne was not accused of any wrongdoing.

“The Board’s decision to keep him on leave without cause is hostile and arbitrary,” Meyer wrote, adding “it appears that the investigation is a sham and a pretext for Dr. Swayne’s removal from his position as President.”

The board hired Greg South as interim president in late December.

However, the court found that nothing in South’s contract demonstrates that NIC intended him be an interim placement. South’s contract runs “at least until June 30th, 2024, unless terminated” and does not mention the possibility of Swayne being reinstated.

South’s $235,000 salary, not including several bonuses, exceeds Swayne’s salary by $5,000.

The injunction comes amid a larger crisis at NIC as the public community college faces the possibility of losing accreditation as soon as this summer.

In a show cause sanction issued last month, NIC’s accrediting body, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, cited the uncertainty of having two presidents as one of several institutional and financial risks.

“By keeping Dr. Swayne on leave, the Board is permitting its Interim President to make discretionary decisions that should be made by Dr. Swayne,” the injunction said.

At its most recent meeting Feb. 22, the board’s minority faction of Brad Corkill and Tarie Zimmerman moved to reinstate Swayne. The motion failed, as Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustees Todd Banducci and Mike Waggoner voted it down.

McKenzie and Banducci voted against hiring Swayne in June 2022. Trustees Corkill, Waggoner and Zimmerman were elected in November.

Swayne replaced former president Rick MacLennan, who was fired without cause in 2021. MacLennan received a $500,000 settlement in a wrongful termination lawsuit against NIC.

Friday’s injunction determined that the board has the power to terminate the president’s contract, but only if a supermajority of trustees determines that he committed some form of misconduct.

The board does not have the authority to place Swayne on leave without cause.

A special board meeting was rescheduled from Saturday to Monday at 6:30 p.m., where the board is expected to respond to the court order. Saturday’s agenda had, after an executive session, an action item listed as “presidential leadership.”

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.