What happens when a board of trustees is completely broken?

A president fired without cause, ongoing accreditation issues, a lack of a quorum on the Board of Trustees. Any one of these issues would be cause for concern at an institution of higher learning, but North Idaho College is simultaneously grappling with all three—and a governing board that just can’t get along.

Beyond that, there are also claims of a trustee bullying, physically assaulting and sexually harassing college employees—claims that he is unwilling to answer questions about.

These interconnected issues have dragged on for months but culminated in the April resignation of two board members, who departed after insisting—unsuccessfully—that the board chair step down. But it wasn’t frustration that prompted the two trustees to resign, they said; Rather, they were making a strategic decision to save North Idaho College from what they considered failed leadership.

Two board members—Ken Howard and Christie Wood—resigned, effective today, from the board board that had only four of the five positions filled; one trustee stepped down in January due to district residency issues. With four trustees, the board constantly deadlocked on votes, prompting Howard and Wood to resign so that only two board members would remain, leaving the Board of Trustees short of a quorum. By law, the Idaho State Board of Education must now appoint candidates to the board.

Now Wood and Howard hope new trustees will reshape the board and take action on issues affecting the college.

The Background

Voters first elected Wood to the Board of Trustees in 2004, followed by Howard in 2010. Over the years, they say, the board functioned as expected, and while there were occasional disagreements, none affected the health or the day-to-day operations of the college. But that changed roughly a year and a half ago, they said, when two new members—Michael Barnes and Greg McKenzie—were elected. (Barnes resigned in January due to questions about his residency, which he never answered, per local media reports.) Along with the new members came new leadership: the appointed Todd Banducci members, elected in 2012, as chair of the board.

“The new trustees disrupted the normal governing structure,” Howard said.

Part of that disruption was firing then president Rick MacLennan without cause. MacLennan, who did not return a request for comment, accused Banducci of bullying him in his time as chair.

“Their agenda was to get rid of the president right away,” Howard said. “Not for any good reason, but just because he was a strong personality and was doing a good job of leadership, and I think they wanted to influence the college more. I think they wanted to step out of their lane as trustees and do more administrative stuff, and that became a conflict between them and the president.”

Wood echoes that criticism, adding that Banducci also gave college staff personal instructions and made demands of the president.

“It was down to the operational level of the college rather than the overall governance of that board,” Wood said.

The board forced MacLennan out on a 3-to-2 vote in September. An exodus of senior staff soon followed. With North Idaho already under the microscope from its accrediting body, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the actions of trustees brought new attention to the college.

NWCCU found the college to be out of compliance and has recommended a period of probation, noting in a letter to the institution that the accreditation issues stem from board leadership.

Explaining the situation in an email to students, interim president Michael Sebaaly wrote that NWCCU had positive reviews of academic programs but pointed to issues at the top.

“The accreditation review is limited to leadership issues at the highest level of our institution—the five-member Board of Trustees elected by the public,” Sebaaly wrote in the April 20 email.

Given the dysfunction on the board—exacerbated by Barnes’s abrupt resignation, which led to a series of deadlocked votes—Howard and Wood called on Banducci to resign. But Banducci rebuffed calls to step down at a Board of Trustees meeting in March.

“I don’t intend to resign. So either we can start working together and move forward positively for the sake of the college, or I guess we continue this public food fight, and that’s unfortunate, too,” Banducci said.

Beyond claims that Banducci runs the board as a hyperpartisan bully, Wood has alleged that the chairman has physically assaulted and sexually harassed female college employees.

Reached by phone, Banducci said he was too busy to talk and would return a call later. Contacted later by email and text message, Banducci did not reply to any questions sent.

Appointing Trustees

The Idaho State Board of Education will now appoint three new trustees for North Idaho College on Friday. Interviews are scheduled for Thursday, and eight finalists have been named.

But it won’t happen without a fight from Banducci and McKenzie, who sued the State Board of Education to prevent it from appointing three new members who will serve through November, when voters will elect new trustees. (McKenzie did not respond to a voice mail message left requesting comment on this story.)

FYI. They are moving at lightning speed to cram it down our throats!!” Banducci wrote in a comment on his campaign’s Facebook page. “They are trying to take it out of the hands of the voters. Pushing thru their agenda via bureaucratic fiat. Candidates?! My understanding is that they will pick 3 finalists for each zone to be interviewed. Please spread the word.”

Banducci and McKenzie sought a restraining order to prevent the Board of Education from appointing three new trustees, arguing that the state only had the authority to add one member, thus reaching a quorum. A district judge, however, shot down that argument last week.

Now three new members will soon join the North Idaho College Board of Trustees. Howard and Wood hope that new members can right the ship and expeditiously guide the college through its ongoing presidential search and accreditation issues.

Understanding the Politics

North Idaho College is located in the city of Coeur d’Alene, which has a population of around 50,000. In Coeur d’Alene—like in much of the Gem State—Republican politics dominate.

“North Idaho, I would characterize as perhaps one of the more conservative parts of an already conservative state,” said Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University.

Banducci’s opponents have suggested that he aims to stave off state appointmentees because he hopes that local voters will pack the board with trustees of a similar political leaning. Recent election results show a deep-red streak in Kootenai County, where Coeur d’Alene is located.

“I think there is undoubtedly a distrust of certain kinds of educational institutions in the state and just really among Republicans nationally. And I think that’s what you see reflected here,” Lyons said. “It’s the kind of a place where you see the concerns that Republicans have magnified here by virtue of sheer numbers. And in North Idaho, that’s undoubtedly the case.”

Local governing bodies, such as college boards of trustees, are expected to be nonpartisan. But regardless of whether trustees are elected by voters, appointed by public officials or selected in other ways at private colleges, they’re expected to function, not disrupt day-to-day operations.

“Each board member and the board itself should uphold their fiduciary responsibility, of loyalty, care and obedience, and think about the institution as a whole,” said Bobby Gitenstein, senior vice president for AGB Consulting and president emerita of the College of New Jersey . “The individual should be aware of the difference between management and oversight, or what I like to call insight. And they should conduct themselves with impeccable integrity.”

How board members interact with one another is also important, she adds.

“There has to be a sense of respect—there has to be a sense of rowing in the same direction,” Gitenstein said. “Now, all these are more difficult sometimes with elected boards, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen. There are many boards that function very, very well.”

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