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NIC asks judge to reverse decision that put Swayne back in office

The North Idaho College logo, as seen on a wall inside the school's bookstore.
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News

Less than a month after a Kootenai County judge ordered North Idaho College to put President Nick Swayne back in office, the college, two of its trustees and some current and former NIC officials are asking the judge to remove him again.

A 24-page memorandum, filed in Kootenai County District Court March 17, asks Judge Cynthia Meyer to re-think her March 3 decision that ordered the college to end Swayne’s paid administrative leave and restore him to office.

In the motion, first reported by the Coeur d’Alene Press, North Idaho College argues there were misstatements in Swayne’s February 24 court testimony, that Swayne failed to prove he could be irreparably harmed by his suspension, that the board had the power to suspend him, and that since his March 6 return to office, Swayne has engaged in “deeply troubling behavior” that allegedly includes telling staffers not to communicate with Board Chair Greg McKenzie and NIC attorney Art Macomber.

The two trustees that support the motion – McKenzie and Todd Banducci – opposed Swayne’s hiring in the summer of 2022 and voted to put him on leave shortly after a political ally was elected to the board in November, giving them a majority.

In an affidavit, Banducci took issue with Swayne’s interpretation of an email Banducci sent last fall that included the phrase “54 days,” an allusion to the upcoming board of trustees election. In court testimony February 24, Swayne told Meyer he thought that was a threat against him. Banducci claimed in an affidavit the remark was meant for another trustee, David Wold, who was not running for re-election.

McKenzie argued putting Swayne on leave for no disciplinary reason December 8 was the best move for the college. He alleged that Swayne’s employment contract was tainted by the way the then-board (which included three appointed temporary trustees) handled the search and hiring process. No proof has yet been submitted that anything was wrong with the way Swayne was hired, but McKenzie’s affidavit said he questioned the legitimacy and propriety of Swayne’s hiring.

An investigation into the contract, led by Macomber, is still in progress, the motion claims.

NIC Communications Office Laura Rumpler said Swayne, in a March 15 meeting, instructed her and other senior officials not to communicate with McKenzie and Macomber, and to avoid creating documents that could be subject to scrutiny as his civil suit against the school was in progress. The college’s motion said the alleged behavior appeared to be aimed at suppressing evidence.

Greg South, whom the board majority hired as interim president in December 2022, submitted a statement in support of motion to reconsider, as did Jim Forkum, an official South brought in to serve as interim dean of student life.

In his February 24 testimony, Swayne said he thought a proposed move to another athletic conference would cost the school $1 million to $2 million a year. McKenzie said that estimate was speculative, and that cost analyses are currently being run. South said “it was clear” to him that no firm estimates had been reached. NIC Chief Financial Officer Sarah Garcia said her office had not yet conducted an official cost analysis for the potential conference move.

“I likely had a conversation about the fact that the change would be an additional expense with Dr. Swayne, but I did not provide or calculate a specific amount,” she said in an affidavit.

South, Garcia and Rumpler questioned Swayne’s claim that a strategic plan for the college was being worked out when he was put on leave. South said he was unaware of any strategic plan. Rumpler said she had not seen a strategic plan, or a draft of one.

The college’s motion re-stated the board’s view that trustees have broad powers to suspend Swayne, though Judge Meyer disagreed with that argument in her March 3 ruling. The motion also hinted at a fundamental power struggle between Swayne and the board: referring to language in Swayne’s contract that limits the board’s power to suspend or fire the president, the motion urged Meyer to adopt a broad interpretation allowing trustees to “take any personnel action related to selecting, appointing, and evaluating the president.”

NIC’s motion to reconsider will be heard March 31. A trial on the full scope of Swayne’s civil suit against the college is currently scheduled for mid-October.

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Read the memorandum spelling out NIC's request for Judge Cynthia Meyer:

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.