Daniel Walters at The Inlander has a revealing report about the attack on NIC from its own board of trustees—where a group of far-right activists, working with the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee (KCRCC), has twice seized control, subsequently wreaking havoc—primarily firing the school’s presidents in quick succession for failing to follow the marching orders of the board’s autocratic (and, at times, physically threatening) chair, Todd Banducci.
After placing the school’s most recently appointed president, Nick Swayne, on indefinite “administrative leave” last week, and tentatively placing an ally of Banducci’s, former interim president Michael Sebaaly, back in the president’s chair, the newly elected board has signaled its return to the scorched-earth tactics that put the school’s accreditation in jeopardy two years ago. Swayne has sued to be reinstated, and the prospect of NIC’s accreditation surviving a scheduled March inspection by a regional commission will hang in the balance.
“We don’t care what people think,” the board’s new attorney, far-right gadfly Art Macomber, responded at a recent board meeting when members of the public reacted negatively to Sebaaly’s return under his previous contract. “We don’t care what you feel.” (Sebaaly later declined the offer.)
Banducci is closely aligned with KCRCC chair Brent Regan, who is also board chairman of the powerful Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF). Since taking over the KCRCC in 2009 and then chairing the IFF in 2016, Regan has fashioned himself a career as a kingmaker of Idaho's far-right politics, and thus become one of the most powerful men in the state.
The NIC board takeover reflects the strongarm tactics that Regan and his cohorts—all of them the leading edge of the radicalization of Idaho politics wrought by an incoming wave of far-right transplants who have no use for the more genteel brand of conservative politics that has long held sway in what at one time was a decidedly more “purple” state. These include unrepentant white nationalists who have worked with Regan to try to sabotage Kootenai County’s Democratic Party apparatus, as well as to welcome an incoming tide of right-wing extremists.
A slate of KCRCC candidates won election to the NIC board in 2020, after which Banducci, who had served on the board since 2012, was made chairman. Banducci already had a long record of ugly interpersonal behavior; one of his fellow trustees, Christie Wood, later recounted his intimidation tactics.
“He became upset at my input into a college matter. He stood up from me, pointed his finger directly at me and said, ‘I ought to take you outside right now and kick your ass,’” Wood wrote. She also described how he responded after a meeting in Sandpoint that he had objected to: “I am not even speaking to you, in fact my wife is going to bitch slap you.” Other trustees described his behavior as being frequently “threatening, intimidating and/or rude.”
He also displayed a penchant for far-right conspiracism when, responding to a right-wing student complaining about a tepid grade in an NIC course, he told the student: “I’m battling the NIC ‘deep state’ on an almost daily basis. … We are registering victories and will register more wins, but it takes time.”
After assuming the board chairmanship, Banducci’s authoritarian style came bubbling up to the fore. Then-president Rick MacLennan later, in an email to the trustees, described a post-election conversation with Banducci:
In my first communication with him after the November election, after the initial greetings, he commented how disappointed he was that I had not called to congratulate him on winning his recent election. During this conversation he disparaged my wife, saying, "I remember when you interviewed for the job and you didn't bring your wife out, which is a good thing since I think she's a Hillary supporter and I couldn’t stand for that." During this conversation, he indicated he and I would be meeting more frequently for him to give me my "marching orders". He added that he intended to change college operating decisions he considered "unconstitutional" regarding the institution's COVID-19 response and related limitations to the college's athletic program—specifically wrestling.
MacLennan pushed back—respectfully, as he described it. “(Banducci) responded by saying, ‘That’s right, the board has only one employee—I guess we can go down that road.’ I understood this to mean that he would seek to terminate my employment if I did not cooperate with him.”
MacLennan also reported to trustees that Banducci had confronted a college employee who had contributed to his opponent’s campaign. And he described an apparent verbal and physical assault by Banducci on a female employee during a college event.
Wood emailed fellow board members calling on Banducci to resign. “Trustee Banducci has created a hostile work environment for the employees of NIC that negatively impacts the entire environment on campus,” she wrote. “I refuse to be complicit and allow his behavior to continue unchecked. For decades in my career as a police officer and as a human rights advocate I have worked to protect victims from criminal behavior. I will not be a silent witness to harassing, threatening behavior that leaves a life-long damaging impact on victims.”
In September 2021, without warning or explanation, the board fired MacLennan as president. A month later, they hired Sebaaly, the school's wrestling coach, touting his doctorate in educational leadership.
As Walters explains:
But the Banducci Era was short-lived. Turns out that one of the new trustees technically lived in South Dakota. [Activist Christa] Hazel and her NIC-backing allies threatened to sue if that trustee didn't resign. He did in January. After that, all it took was for two of Banducci's critics to also resign and the State Board of Education could legally appoint three new trustees, and—voila! —the moderates were back in power by May.
That mattered, because the school’s academic standing—which has been solid for decades—was suddenly at risk. In April 2022, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities issued a warning following a visit by inspectors, saying that if the board of trustees didn't shape up, its accreditation would be at risk:
[The] institution continues to be non-compliant with Eligibility Requirement 9 and Standards 2.A.1 and 2.D.2 relating to the demonstration of high ethical standards in governance and management, including the NIC Board of Trustees’ responsibility to ensure integrity in its deliberations and actions, ethical treatment of stakeholders and constituents, adherence to institutional and Board policies, and adherence to conflict of interest policies. In light of the above, the Commission concludes that the NIC Board of Trustees’ actions to date do not provide assurance that the Board has or will follow through with the steps agreed to in the May 28, 2021, Board Statement to restore effective governance at North Idaho College. Because of the persistent issues with governance at the institution, the Commission has imposed the sanction of Warning …
After a proper search, the new board promptly hired Swayne as the new NIC president in the summer of 2022, and changed the language of his contract to ensure that he could not be fired without justification, as MacLennan had. This later proved to be a key moment.
However, the three NIC board positions were on the ballot in the fall 2022 election. The KCRCC endorsed a slate of its far-right candidates who all vowed to support Banducci, while the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce supported a slate of moderates. The pro-Banducci slate didn’t even bother to participate in traditional debates. On Election Day, only one of them won—but that was enough to turn the tide to hand control to Banducci.
"There's a new board... not a board picked by the governor and his minions," Banducci crowed. "We're going to start fresh. It's a new era and a new dawn here at NIC."
He labeled his critics "bullies" and "cowards" who are "vile and evil", claiming the people who "supposedly love this college were ready to burn it down to the ground just because of their own personal issues just with me."
One of his first actions was to force the board’s long-serving attorney Marc Lyons, who had been NIC’s attorney for 23 years, to step down. At their Nov. 28 meeting, he badgered Lyons mercilessly in an exchange afterward: “You haven’t done your job in so long,” he told Lyons, leaning into his face. “You are so corrupt. You’re disgusting.” As Lyons walked away, he continued: “You’re so disgusting. You’re an embarrassment to your profession.”
The next week, he and his right-wing cohorts fired Swayne. It was a scene straight out of Kafka, with Banducci and Macomber claiming that changing the terms of Swayne’s contract to ensure he couldn’t be fired without cause was some kind of procedural violation—so his hiring was nullified, requiring him to be placed on administrative leave.
The dominoes that led to Swayne’s suspension began Swayne refused to sign the contract to hire Macomber as their new attorney under the terms of his $325-an-hour contract. At a subsequent board meeting, Tarie Zimmerman, part of the anti-Banducci faction, questioned the hiring of Macomber, a longtime figure in the IFF and other far-right factions. She pointed out that Macomber was named legal counsel outside of any meetings or discussions, and that his contract arose under dubious circumstances as well.
“He wrote his own fee agreement,” she said. “He walked in and was hired on the spot. Who gets to do that?”
Macomber then directed the board’s attention to Swayne’s contract, claiming that the decision in September to change the wording on his contract was illegitimate. He proposed placing Swayne on administrative leave for the duration of an investigation into the change to his contract. “In the meantime, college operations might be stymied,” Macomber said.
The board then voted 3-2 to do so.
"It appears that your sole purpose is to undermine the college and to bring it down and destroy the college," Zimmerman said to the board's majority.
“Watching this trainwreck unfold, there's significant concern that our institution is in jeopardy," Hazel, a moderate Republican activist who's part of the "Save NIC" movement, told Walters.
Gil Rossner Jr., of Hayden Lake, in a letter to the editor of the Coeur d’Alene Press, penned a common refrain among community members discussing what’s happened to their local college.
“I am totally confused as to the motivations of the new majority bloc on the board,” Rossner wrote. “I’m convinced they want to burn the college down. But why?”
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