“Per your contract,” Todd Banducci wrote in an 8:44 a.m. email to Rick MacLennan of North Idaho College, “I believe you are to provide an accounting of leave days on an annual basis.” Banducci said he’d like to get MacLennan’s most recent report within seven business days.
Five minutes later, Banducci told MacLennan he wanted meeting notifications as far in advance as possible. He had a very busy schedule, he wrote, and did not like being told of a recent meeting on such short notice. Two minutes after that, he requested that MacLennan start sending regular summaries of his activities. Banducci’s motto, he explained, is the “more communication the better.” In the next two minutes, he requested “an accounting of your submitted expenses for the last 1.5 years.”
Finally, four minutes later, amid other requests, Banducci noted that a student had not uttered the words “under God” when she recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the previous year’s graduation ceremony.
“I expect,” Banducci wrote, “that this institution will work hard to see that should never happen again.”
MacLennan, who leads North Idaho College, a community college in Coeur d’Alene, about 13 miles from the state’s western border, had had enough. His concerns weren’t solely about Banducci’s emails and the trustee’s instruction to constrain students’ speech, he wrote in an email to the full board, first reported by the Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press and obtained by The Chronicle through a public-records request. Rather, the president pointed to what he called a pattern of “aggressive and intimidating” behavior by Banducci, including, he wrote, disparaging MacLennan’s wife for supposedly being a Hillary Clinton supporter, and telling the president that they’d be meeting more frequently so that Banducci could give him his “marching orders.” That, plus Banducci’s latest messages, indicated to MacLennan that the trustee intended to “inappropriately direct me without full board involvement and knowledge.”
The board, MacLennan wrote, needed to do something.
MacLennan’s appeal for help was just the latest in a saga that has enveloped North Idaho for months, a story of partisanship and distrust of higher education. In Kootenai County, as in counties across America, disdain for colleges is thriving among people on the right and far right. For years, locals have made bogeymen out of the faculty, characterizing them as radicals with leftist agendas, committed to indoctrinating students.
But recently, that sentiment has reached a fever pitch and flipped control of North Idaho’s board. During a contentious election, two candidates rode that wave of disgruntlement to victory. With their support, Banducci, a longtime trustee, took over as chair. And, records show, he has circumvented normal board procedure in an attempt to keep the president in line.
Now, the college is in turmoil. Faculty and staff governance groups have called on Banducci to resign as chair. The five-member board is divided between those who fear his actions have or will jeopardize the college’s future, and those who’ve dismissed their concerns as overblown.
What’s happening at North Idaho, while it reflects an increasingly common antipathy toward higher education, is also unusual. Even harsh critics of the sector, research has shown, tend to feel positive about their local campuses. But in Kootenai County, once dubbed the most Republican county in the most Republican state, many on the right have focused their ire not on the state flagship hours away but on the community college down the street.
Those newcomers, in alliance with longtime residents, remade local politics by harnessing the power of the county’s Republican Central Committee. Made up of 70 elected representatives, the committee has traditionally met regularly to discuss party business and controls who goes to the state’s GOP convention. Now it also assesses candidates for office. Over time, the committee has shifted further right, alienating more moderate Republicans.
It’s become an “echo chamber,” said Dan Gookin, a Coeur d’Alene city councilman and a member of the central committee, who frequently finds himself at odds with others in the group. In 2019, for example, it welcomed a well-known promoter of the baseless “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory to a meeting, where she talked about the “political persecution” of her fiancé, Martin Sellner, a far-right anti-immigration activist from Austria who at the time was being investigated for his ties to the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings, the Inlander reported. The committee passed a resolution, calling on the federal government to allow Sellner into the country.
For years, central-committee leadership has tried to make nonpartisan local elections partisan, the Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press wrote in an editorial. The committee wanted to make inroads on the school board, the hospital board, and city council, BuzzFeed reported in 2017. In 2020, the committee even endorsed three candidates for the local soil-and-water conservation district as “good conservative men.”
North Idaho College’s Board of Trustees presented another opportunity. In November, three of its five seats were up for grabs. Over the past decade the college, which sits on the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene, has enrolled about 6,000 credit-earning students a year, though that number has fluctuated and trended downward. Its work-force training center, which offers courses in trades such as welding, mine safety, and wood-products manufacturing, has earned it high marks for community engagement.
It’s not clear when or exactly to what extent the Republican Central Committee got involved in the trustee election. Brent Regan, the committee’s chair, did not respond to requests for comment. But some locals, like B. Evan Koch, who chairs the county Democrats’ central committee, noted that area Republicans’ interest in the trustees’ races seemed to reach a new intensity in 2020, compared with previous years. By September, two Republican Central Committee members — Greg McKenzie and Michael H. Barnes — had declared their intent to run. (Banducci, also a member of the central committee, ran unopposed.)
McKenzie, a research engineer who moved to the area in 2013, described himself as someone who could bring fiscal discipline to the college. The board has been “rubber-stamping budgets for too long,” he wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page. McKenzie was also concerned by the “lack of tolerance” displayed on college campuses nationwide, he wrote on Facebook.
Barnes, a U.S. Navy veteran and an IT-security auditor, told voters he was running because higher education has “failed our country.” It has slipped into “ever more radical-left progressive ideology” and is dangerously promoting “socialist objectives,” he posted on Facebook. During a speech about his candidacy, Barnes noted that he was troubled by the college’s “Cardinal Pledge” — the promise North Idaho encouraged students and employees to sign, saying they would wear a cloth face covering, maintain physical distance, and follow other health-and-safety protocols. “I visited the campus and I saw kids, adults too, of all ages, walking in the clear open with a mask on with nobody around them, just blind submission to what they say.” (Barnes did not respond to an interview request.)
Barnes was also fired up by an incident at the college over the summer. After the death of George Floyd, the college’s Diversity Council, a group of mostly faculty and staff members, said in a statement that it supports “gatherings that give voice to the systemic and structural issues embedded in societal inequities, from #BlackLivesMatter to #WaterForLife.”
The council later clarified that the college itself has not taken a stance on Black Lives Matter, the movement that protests violence against Black people, and that the council has never supported it with actual resources. But the misconception that taxpayer dollars were going to Black Lives Matter caught fire, tapping into existing distaste for the movement. In June, when residents peacefully rallied at a Coeur d’Alene park to support Black Lives Matter, they were met by counterprotesters, some of whom were armed, the Press reported.
To improve North Idaho College, Barnes said on his candidacy-Facebook page, the board should remove “politically charged advocacy” for Black Lives Matter and other “‘social justice’ indoctrination efforts.”
State lawmakers also flexed their anti-social justice bona fides by criticizing North Idaho. At a town hall hosted by the GOP’s central committee, legislators were asked what they were going to do about “our NIC tax monies” going to support Black Lives Matter. One Republican representative, Tony Wisniewski, claimed that Black Lives Matter “does not support, necessarily, two loving parents in a home” and that “they give the option” that “single-parent families are OK.”
“Now what is that going to do to our Black communities?” Wisniewski asked the crowd. “It’s going to destroy them.”
He also energized the audience by saying that their taxpayer dollars go to a highly paid Boise State University employee who sits “in their stinking office all day long to come up with diversity programs.” That’s “disgusting, in my opinion,” he said, to applause.
Rep. Ron Mendive, another Republican, described how the House education committee had been fighting diversity efforts at Boise State for months. In 2019, a letter to the university’s president was co-signed by 28 House Republicans, who urged her to scrap campus initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion. In March 2020, House Republicans killed the higher–education budget, with some citing money directed to such programs as a reason. This year, lawmakers again are trying to punish Boise State for pursuing a “social-justice agenda” by carving money from its bottom line, Idaho Ed News reported.
“We’ve given a lot of ground to the enemy,” said Representative Mendive at the town hall. But “we need to take our country back.” That happens at the local level, he said, at the school boards.
Steve Vick, another GOP lawmaker, urged the audience to vote for McKenzie and Barnes. It was an opportunity to “take back control” of the board.
Because public education has wandered away from its core mission, he said.
“Every poll says that college graduates vote more liberal than non-college graduates. As a college graduate, I’ll say this: It’s not ‘cause they’re smarter. It’s just ‘cause they spent more years being indoctrinated.”
Still, the narrative of liberal indoctrination has gained traction among Republicans nationwide. Between 2010 and 2019, the share of Republicans or those who lean Republican who thought that colleges had a positive effect on the country dropped to 33 percent from 58 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. In a 2018 survey, roughly eight in 10 Republicans said professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom were “a major reason why the higher education system is going in the wrong direction.”
State legislatures are acting in kind. Republican lawmakers have introduced several bills to target what they deem as divisive topics on college campuses and in public schools. In Idaho, an arm of the think tank Idaho Freedom Foundation has circulated a robocall, claiming that Idaho colleges are “teaching young people to hate America.” The group has started a campaign to pressure lawmakers to defund the “leftist indoctrination” in Idaho higher ed.
In Kootenai County, it was never unusual to hear comments like, “Put the ‘community’ back in community colleges,” Ken Howard, a North Idaho trustee who was not up for re-election this past November, told The Chronicle. Recently, that sentiment has become “much more prominent,” he said.
In their campaigns, Barnes and McKenzie both said they’d bring conservative values to the board. Both were running against longtime educators. Barnes’s opponent was Paul Sturm, who had spent 10 years as superintendent of the Pullman School District, in Washington. McKenzie was running against Joe Dunlap, an incumbent trustee and former president of North Idaho College who has also been president of Spokane Community College.
Both Sturm and Dunlap balked when the Republican committee sent candidates a questionnaire asking, in part, how closely they adhered to Republican ideals. “Please tell us about your activity as a Republican. Have you previously voted for those of other parties? If so explain,” the document said. Sturm and Dunlap refused to fill it out. The board was supposed to be nonpartisan. Any mainstream Republican, Democrat, or independent “should be outraged,” Dunlap told the Press at the time.
Some locals didn’t buy it. “We have far too many progressive liberals in nonpolitical positions of power that affect our daily lives,” argued one Coeur d’Alene resident in the local press. If Sturm and Dunlap are offended by the questions, “I wonder what they have to hide.”
In the end, the two men’s pedigrees may have worked against them. They have been “enmeshed in and lived the educational industrial complex their entire careers,” wrote another citizen. But “doesn’t all that experience and education seem more fitting for staff positions within the college,” the local wrote, “rather than on its board overseeing it?”
The GOP’s central committee endorsed McKenzie, Barnes, and Banducci, who ran unopposed. On Election Day, the committee sent people to polling sites to hand out sample ballots with the preferred candidates identified, including those for nonpartisan races.
The victory was resounding.
Banducci has always seen everything through an intensely political lens, said Christie Wood, a fellow North Idaho trustee. He recently told a student that he was battling the “NIC ‘deep state’” on an “almost daily basis.” Liberals “are quite deeply entrenched” but “we are registering victories,” Banducci wrote in a January email to the student, obtained by The Chronicle through a public-records request.
At a 2014 board meeting, the student-body president spoke up about what he considered Banducci’s harsh questions and disrespectful comments at two previous meetings. You, Banducci told the student, have “become a pawn,” and your “indoctrination is clearly complete.”
Dunlap, who was president of North Idaho for four years, during which time Banducci was on the board, says the trustee constantly tried to overstep his role. Once, Dunlap recounted, Banducci called him up to advocate putting someone on a committee who was “very controversial.” When Dunlap objected, Banducci said, “Joe, don’t make me use my trustee card.”
“And I said, ‘You don’t have a trustee card. I work at the behest of all five board members, not just you,’” Dunlap recalled.
Banducci has also been aggressive toward fellow trustees, according to Wood and to Judy Meyer, a trustee emeritus. Wood recounted in a letter to the board that during a 2012 board meeting, Banducci pointed at her and said, “I ought to take you outside right now and kick your ass.” Dunlap and Howard also said they’d witnessed Banducci act aggressively. “He would, in essence, stand over these women and just start screaming at them,” Dunlap said.
In April of 2020, the board privately censured Banducci for his behavior after a female college employee lodged a complaint. It was determined that the trustee’s conduct was not a Title IX violation, but the staff member “felt threatened and intimidated” by Banducci’s actions, reads the censure, obtained by The Chronicle through a public-records request. North Idaho would not release investigative records about the incident but confirmed that the complaint had reached an “informal resolution.”
Through the investigation, the board also learned of “past situations” in which Banducci’s actions were perceived to be “threatening, intimidating, and/or rude,” the censure says. “We remain concerned that you do not appreciate how your interactions can sometimes create distress and anxiety for NIC staff.” In the aftermath, the board created and adopted a conduct policy for trustees, meant to insulate the college from lawsuits if a board member acts out of bounds. Banducci opposed it, arguing it would stifle communication between trustees and people at the college and was unnecessary.
Banducci declined to give a phone interview or to answer emailed questions from The Chronicle. Instead, he sent a statement saying that he had thrice been elected by voters to “increase transparency and community oversight.”
Too often people forget NIC works for the community and students, which I represent. It appears this is a concerted effort to discredit me because some don’t appreciate the questions I ask as I attempt to fulfill my role as Board Chair. I choose to focus on solving the problems we face and not dwell on perceived current or past slights. I serve with the approval and at the pleasure of the voters.
During his tenure, Banducci clearly felt he was serving in the minority. There were times, he said at a recent board meeting, that he had “no voice.” As Wood sees it, Banducci convinced citizens that the rest of the board would not work with him because of his politics.
Then came the election. Gookin described chatting with an energized Banducci after a central-committee meeting. “He was just out for blood,” saying “they’ve been messing with him for eight years. They’ve been disrespecting him and kicking him to the curb,” Gookin said. “And he was going to get his pound of flesh.” Wood recalled a similar conversation, in which Banducci told her that if his two guys won, she was “not going to be very happy.” The dynamic was about to change, drastically.
With McKenzie and Barnes on the board, he had the votes to become chair. And the dynamic did start to change. In December, Banducci argued for rescinding the board’s recently adopted conduct policy. “We’re basically setting ourselves up to try to slap each others’ wrists,” he said. It passed, with McKenzie and Barnes voting in favor, though trustees left the door open to adopting a revised conduct policy in the future.
As MacLennan, the president, would later recount in his email to the board, in Banducci’s first communication with him after the election, the trustee said he intended to challenge operational decisions that he considered “unconstitutional,” like the college’s response to Covid-19 and the subsequent limitations that the college placed on athletics.
When MacLennan objected, saying those decisions fell within the president’s domain, Banducci responded: “That’s right, the board only has one employee — I guess we can go down that road.” MacLennan took that as a threat that he would be fired if he didn’t fall in line.
In November, Banducci emailed MacLennan, saying he thought “we could find a way” for the college’s wrestling team to start up again. And “what about basketball?” Banducci asked. “Gonzaga is playing,” he noted. MacLennan forwarded the email to the full board with responses to Banducci’s questions. Wood chimed in, saying she was “respectfully asking my fellow trustees to understand the implications of one board member having direct conversations about college operations with the president and staff.” She didn’t mean to discourage communication, she wrote, just to be mindful.
“As we know,” she wrote, “the board operates as a unit.”
But in January, when Banducci sent MacLennan the stream of morning emails, only in one message of five did he copy the full board. MacLennan — who declined an interview request from The Chronicle — decided to speak up. He documented Banducci’s affronts to proper college procedures and etiquette — the Hillary Clinton dig at his wife; the “marching orders” comment; that Banducci had, according to MacLennan, called up a college employee to inquire why that employee had donated to Dunlap, whom Banducci considered a rival.
MacLennan knew that by sending his email, which he did on January 18, he was opening a door that “cannot easily be closed,” he wrote. But the present situation, he believed, was “untenable.”
Wood, who was a career police officer and now serves on the Coeur d’Alene city council, was appalled. For years, she told The Chronicle, she’s just “worked through” Banducci’s threatening remarks because “we’re elected officials, and elected officials tend to disagree.” Now, more was at stake. Banducci’s actions, she believed, flew in the face of good governance, set the institution up for possible litigation, and possibly threatened the college’s accreditation.
This time, she wouldn’t agree to a private resolution. She wrote the full board a letter describing her own experiences with Banducci. If this is not addressed, she wrote, every board member is complicit. She gave Banducci 24 hours to resign from the board.
He didn’t. So Wood sent her letter to the Press.
When the story broke, a group of women rallied behind Wood, publicly calling Banducci’s behavior “disturbing and unacceptable.” But many others in Kootenai County vehemently disagreed. Wood “is the one who needs to resign, she’s a leftist tyrant!” one person commented on the Press’s Facebook page. “Todd is the only one keeping the place sane,” said another. “If he’s gone, the college will go the way of San Francisco and Seattle. Welcome communism.”
Through public-records requests, Banducci’s emails, like the one in which he told a student that he was battling the “deep state” at NIC, began to circulate, painting a more detailed picture of his actions. The student had complained to the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal-advocacy organization founded by the televangelist Pat Robertson, about being censored in a class over a project that the student had wanted to do on the “similarities of early American slavery and abortion.” The student then forwarded the complaint to Banducci, who responded that he hoped to, at some point, help the student “extract some amount of justice” and perhaps adjust the grade.
At the college, the Faculty Assembly passed a resolution saying, in part, that faculty members have the responsibility to evaluate student performance “without board influence.” The assembly voted “no confidence” in Banducci, called on him to step down as chair, and called on the board to reinstate its conduct policy. Eventually, the staff assembly would do the same, and would call for an independent investigation of Banducci.
Action on those demands quickly stalled on the divided board. Banducci said in a statement that Wood had been “antagonistic” toward him since he’d joined. Greg McKenzie said that Wood owed Banducci and her fellow trustees an apology for going to the press, according to emails obtained through a public-records request.
There’s no “dirty-laundry clause” in board discussions and meetings, Wood responded. “It will never be my duty to cover up, or make excuses for bad or illegal behavior.”
At a February 10 board meeting, Ken Howard made a motion for Banducci to be removed — not from the board but as chair. “Quite frankly, it gives me no pleasure to make a motion like this,” but it was a necessity, at least for now, said Howard, solemnly. “We are facing a severe public image issue,” he said. “The community has to have confidence in us.”
But his argument was dead in the water. In a long statement, McKenzie scolded Wood for her actions. That he and Banducci are members of the Republican party “was used against us from the beginning.” He criticized Wood for circumventing due process, dredging up old issues, and mounting what he called a “public smear campaign.”
“It’s not a smear campaign,” Wood responded, “if it’s the truth.”
(McKenzie invited The Chronicle to send questions over email but added that his prepared statement “covered my logic quite well.” He did not answer the further questions sent via email.)
The motion failed, with Banducci, McKenzie, and Barnes voting against it. Again, MacLennan implored trustees to act. He reminded them of Banducci’s actions, of what he called an “egregious interference” with college operations. In an effort to move swiftly past conflict, he wrote in a letter, obtained through public-records laws, “the board is failing in its duty.”
What the president wants will not happen, at least for now. At the most recent board meeting, on February 24, which was open to the public and attended virtually by a Chronicle reporter, staff and faculty representatives explained their votes of no confidence in Banducci. “In the wake of a worldwide pandemic and declining enrollment, and in a country crippled by partisan interests, we need a unified, nonpartisan board,” said Jeff Davis, chair of the staff assembly executive committee.
“We need a board that instills confidence in itself,” he continued.
But Banducci expressed a desire to move on. “The more we foment this, the more we divide. I just don’t see how that’s helpful,” he said. It seemed to him that “vocal minorities” among the faculty and staff were pushing for those resolutions against him. It’s unfortunate, he said, that everyone felt the need to weigh in instead of letting the board try to work through its disagreements “in a positive way.”
He reminded those who were tuning in that, back in November, there were two candidates on the ballot with Ph.D.s, one a former president of the institution. And they were both soundly beaten. “What,” Banducci asked, “is the message being sent by the community?”
The answer isn’t hard to parse. A new majority is afoot.