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Judge denies NIC trustee lawsuit

Hagadone News Network | April 28, 2022 1:00 AM

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COEUR d’ALENE — A judge rejected an attempt by North Idaho College trustees Todd Banducci and Greg McKenzie to block the appointment of three new board members.

District Judge Cynthia Meyer denied a request on Wednesday to grant a temporary restraining order against the Idaho State Board of Education as it works to fill three vacancies on the NIC Board of Trustees.

Filed Tuesday by Post Falls attorney James Bendell, the lawsuit asserted that the State Board is “exceeding its authority” by appointing more than one trustee.

Idaho Code 33-2106(d)(2) states, in part: “Vacancies on the board of trustees shall be filled by appointment by the remaining members, but if by reason of vacancies there remains on the board less than a majority of the required number of members, appointments to fill such vacancies shall be made by the state board of education.”

The suit contended that the State Board is empowered only to appoint the number of trustees needed to constitute a majority — in NIC’s case, just one.

McKenzie and Banducci sought an order prohibiting the State Board from appointing more than one new trustee after Trustees Ken Howard and Christie Wood resign next week.

Bendell argued in court Wednesday that appointing more than one trustee is “anti-democratic” and violates the intention of the law.

Meyer rejected that argument.

“I think the board is doing exactly what it is empowered to do,” she said.

She added that she agrees with the State Board’s reading of the statute, noting that it refers to “vacancies” in plural form — not a singular vacancy or only the number of vacancies needed for a majority.

“It’s not a difficult interpretation of the statutory language,” Meyer said.

Banducci and McKenzie did not respond to Press requests for comment.

The State Board of Education declined to comment on pending litigation.

Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan appeared to be the first person to publicly float the interpretation of the statute that Meyer rejected.

“If the law was intended to allow all vacancies to be filled it would have said ‘all vacancies,’ but it doesn’t,” Regan wrote in an April 15 Facebook post.

He added that he is not an attorney.

Banducci shared a similar reading days later on Facebook.

“Many feel the SBOE is overstepping its authority & should only be appointing 1 Trustee to bring the board back to a quorum,” he wrote on April 20.

The State Board has accepted applications for vacancies in Zones 1, 2 and 5.

A total of 37 candidates applied by Monday’s deadline.

Three new trustees could shift the balance of power on the board.

Banducci, Barnes and McKenzie formed a bloc that voted to fire former President Rick MacLennan without cause last September and to appoint wrestling coach Michael Sebaaly as interim president a month later.

MacLennan later filed a wrongful termination lawsuit and received almost $500,000 as part of a settlement over his firing.

Former Trustee Michael Barnes quit in January, amid concerns he had established legal residency in South Dakota and was no longer eligible to serve on the board.

Since Barnes resigned, the board has been deadlocked in 2-2 votes — an issue longtime trustees Christie Wood and Ken Howard said they hoped to resolve by stepping down and making way for new trustees appointed by the State Board.

The pair announced their resignations earlier this month, effective May 3.

They said they were at an impasse with Banducci and McKenzie, unable to agree on a fifth trustee to fill the vacancy left by Barnes.

Meeting the minimum requirement of five trustees is one of the recommendations made by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which recently sanctioned NIC with a warning.

The NIC search is reportedly modeled off the process used in 2017, when the State Board filled the inaugural board at the College of Eastern Idaho.

A State Board committee is scheduled to interview trustee finalists at NIC on May 5.

The entire board will meet the following day and appoint three temporary trustees, who will serve until the next trustee election in November.

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