In a scenic corner of Idaho, a battle over power, freedom and safety is playing out between a college president and the board he answers to.
For several months, the North Idaho College Board of Trustees has delayed voting on the president’s contract, despite repeatedly scheduling meetings to do so. The delays leave Rick MacLennan, president of the community college in Coeur d’Alene, uncertain about whether he’ll still have a job later this fall. While failing to act on the president’s employment, the five-member board — which is currently under investigation by the college’s accrediting agency — has expanded its own powers and struck down a mask mandate at recent special meetings.
On Tuesday, the board voted to table its entire meeting agenda, including action on the president’s employment. Any discussion or vote on the matter was postponed until a previously scheduled meeting on Sept. 22; the board is precluded from holding any special sessions before then.
Tuesday marked at least the third time the board decided to delay a vote to renew MacLennan’s contract. MacLennan became president in 2016, and the board has renewed his three-year contract every other year since.
MacLennan said he has not been told why the board continues to postpone action on his employment. He also said he has no sense of how the board will vote when it does decide to take up the matter. During Tuesday’s meeting, the president asked Todd Banducci, chair of the board, for an explanation of the delay.
“I just want the board to understand that this is continuing to be very disruptive to this institution on many levels,” MacLennan said. “As your CEO, I am respectfully asking you to explain what is going on this evening.”
Banducci first ignored the question, but after additional prompting from MacLennan, said, “I’m not sure that your question is appropriate to be addressed at this time. I’m not even sure I understand the answer that you’re seeking with that question.”
During a special session last Thursday, the board voted 3 to 2 to amend college policy and give itself control over the college’s preventative measures for communicable diseases. After doing so, the board again voted 3 to 2 to repeal a two-week mask mandate MacLennan announced the preceding week, which had been in place for four days.
“My decision for this should in no way be construed as I oppose anybody else wearing masks,” trustee Michael Barnes said during the meeting. “What I oppose is any government-funded entity dictating to people what they can and cannot do.”
MacLennan has since asked the board to reconsider its decision.
“In light of increasing COVID-19 positive cases within our college community and a direct and public request to our board of trustees by 140 physicians and health professionals from Kootenai Health (our local community hospital) to restore the mask mandate and other safety measures, I have requested a board response,” MacLennan wrote in an email. “I have also requested that they reverse their decision to rescind my mask mandate.”
The president referred to a recent open letter signed by dozens of county health providers, which asked the board to implement “simple, science-based, evidence-based, tested methods we know slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
“The recent surge of COVID-19 has converged with school and college openings, presenting us with a new and grave challenge,” the medical professionals wrote. “Our hospital is navigating a crisis; the overwhelming number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has resulted in our inability to fully care for our community.”
Christie Wood, one of two trustees who voted against the mandate repeal, said the new governance policy the board adopted does not comply with state law or established college policy.
“I am appalled at the lack of responsibility these three board members feel toward protecting the institution from expensive legal challenges and protecting our students and employees from a deadly virus,” Wood said, referring to Banducci, Barnes and trustee Greg McKenzie, who voted to repeal the mandate.
Banducci, McKenzie, Barnes and trustee Ken Howard did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the board remains under investigation by the college’s accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The agency launched an investigation into governance of the college in March after receiving a formal complaint about Banducci and other board members.
“Mr. Banducci and the new Board majority have engaged in conduct that is counter to the civil and human rights and civil liberties protected by the United States Constitution, Federal laws, Idaho laws, and NIC policies for all NIC employees and students,” the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations wrote in its complaint.
The college has since responded to the accrediting agency’s notice of the investigation, and the agency in turn has asked the college to provide by next August an ad hoc report that includes “the commitment and actions to be taken by the college’s governance and administrative leadership as described in the evidence presented in the Board’s statement to agree to readdress its roles and responsibilities in relation to the college administration.”
The board’s recent actions have not helped the college’s case, Wood said.
“I am deeply concerned this board continues to violate good governance standards as required in order to keep our accreditation,” Wood said. “The loss of accreditation will have a devastating impact on all of our constituents in north Idaho.”