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North Idaho College submits accreditation report amid court battle with president

The entrance of North Idaho College is photographed on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

North Idaho College submitted a report Friday showing why it believes it should not lose accreditation after it was sanctioned.

The submission comes in the middle of a court battle in which president Nick Swayne is suing NIC for violating his contract by placing him on leave without cause. Uncertainty about who the chief executive officer is at NIC is one of eight risks identified by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which is the accrediting agency for the school.

Judge Cynthia Meyer heard arguments in Kootenai County District Court Friday morning on NIC’s motion to reconsider a preliminary injunction that forced the college to reinstate Swayne in early March.

Here’s a look at the ongoing court case tied to the accreditation crisis and the school’s latest steps to preserve its academic standing:

President contention

NIC’s attorney Kelly Drew alleges Swayne was untruthful in his court testimony on several topics, including estimates made about the costs of changing athletic conferences, an email from Trustee Todd Banducci that he found threatening, and his efforts to develop a strategic plan and foster goodwill in the community.

Drew further argued that Swayne has unclean hands based on intimidating statements he allegedly made at a cabinet meeting, according to a declaration by Laura Rumpler, NIC’s communications and government relations officer.

Swayne’s attorney Tara Malek denies those charges.

Malek requested to strike from the record parts of declarations supporting the request for reconsideration by several members of NIC leadership, objecting that they are inadmissible hearsay.

Meyer ruled against NIC’s request to present witness testimony in Friday’s hearing, saying NIC had plenty of time to prepare and enter evidence at a February hearing.

She called NIC’s claim that they could not have anticipated Swayne’s testimony “frankly absurd.” His testimony was consistent with his written declaration, Meyer said.

The effort by NIC to overturn the preliminary injunction has been questioned by former Coeur d’Alene city attorney Mike Gridley, who is suing NIC for open meeting law violations.

The decision to file the motion to reconsider was never authorized by a board vote at a public meeting. If it was discussed in executive session, then a vote should have been made when the board came out of executive session, Gridley said.

Trustees Tarie Zimmerman and Brad Corkill called for a special meeting Thursday night with one agenda item, “to confirm litigation strategy.”

The meeting never convened because a quorum was not reached. Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustee Mike Waggoner did not show up, and Banducci is traveling outside of the country.

Another public meeting was canceled Tuesday afternoon. Agenda items for that meeting were to address a draft of the accreditation response and a new policy on presidential succession.

Instead, the board stayed in executive session, then left to a different room on campus for a videoconference with the accrediting agency.

While waiting for the other trustees on Thursday, Swayne, Corkill and Zimmerman held an informal question and answer session with the public.

Show cause report

The college’s 36-page accreditation report responds to the eight risks in the accrediting agency’s show cause sanction. While some of the risks have been addressed, others remain a work in progress.

Some risks, from changes to the athletics program and significant financial stresses, are resolved, the report said.

Uncertainty as to who the chief executive officer is; frequent changes in leadership without relevant stakeholder input; and multiple no-confidence resolutions by students, faculty and staff are in the process of being resolved, the report said. The college is continuing to address the fundamental causes of the lawsuits, improve employee retention and increase enrollments.

The report says NIC is committed to continuing its mission to serve its students.

It acknowledges that “decisions made by the board over the past few months have been disruptive, and the cascading effects of those decisions have caused uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety both in the institution itself and in the community at large.”

The board is making progress and working with consultants from the Association of Community College Trustees to improve governance, the report said.

Swayne said the accrediting agency “bent over backwards” to support administrators in writing the report, and that they want NIC to succeed.

Representatives are scheduled to visit the campus April 26 and 27. They will then meet to evaluate NIC in June. The college will have an opportunity to appeal in July.

“We ask that the (accrediting agency) allow us to step back from the show cause cliff where we find ourselves and place us on a lesser sanction so that we can work to resolve all risks expeditiously and return to good standing,” the report concludes. “This situation is uncharted territory for both of us, and we need your help.”

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.