NAMPA — Nampa Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mitch Minnette has wondered recently what would happen if the kerfuffle at North Idaho College were to happen at the College of Western Idaho.
“I do think about the North Idaho College stuff because it would affect the business community,” Minnette said as moderator of a chamber-hosted trustee candidates debate for CWI on Tuesday night. “It would paralyze the Nampa and Treasure Valley community if CWI does not thrive … so the chamber is going to do everything we can to make sure we support the mission of the college.”
NIC drew widespread attention following the election of a slate of board members who fired the college’s president, setting in motion a wrongful termination lawsuit from the former leader that ended in a $500,000 settlement. Other woes, including the resignation of some upper management, being dropped by its insurance carrier, and nearly losing accreditation have left the college on shaky footing.
It’s top of mind with Idaho elections, including for College of Western Idaho board seats, less than two weeks away. The decision to host Tuesday’s debate, which took place in a classroom at the CWI in Nampa, came following numerous inquiries from community members concerned that they did not know who the candidates were or what they stood for, Minnette said.
Four of five of the board’s seats are up for election, and a slate of four candidates — Alisha Hickman, Jan Zarr, Ryan Spoon, and Thad Butterworth — all initially endorsed by the Ada County Republican Central Committee, are running for each of them. Their platform has emphasized ending agenda-based curricula and cutting wasteful spending.
The college has the lowest property tax levy of any community college in the state, as previously reported.
Candidates present at Tuesday’s debate included Zone 1 candidate Nicole Bradshaw, Zone 2 candidate and incumbent Molly Lenty, Zone 3 candidates Jim Reames and Jan Zarr, and Zone 4 candidates Annie Hightower (incumbent) and Thad Butterworth. Candidates Alisha Hickman (Zone 1), Gordon Simpson (Zone 3), and Ryan Spoon (Zone 3) had shared they would be unable to attend the debate, Minnette said.
Residents of Ada and Canyon County can vote for any of the candidates.
Below are highlights from the debate, which can be viewed in full at the Nampa Chamber’s YouTube page. It’s also embedded below.
AVOIDING NORTH IDAHO COLLEGE-STYLE TURMOIL
Candidates were asked how they would work to avoid CWI falling prey to the same board struggles as North Idaho College.
Hightower said working to be open-minded and responsible decision-makers is key.
“We are not a one-issue school, and I’m not going to bring one issue or a pet project into my decision making,” she said.
Bradshaw said ensuring stability of the school will require “listening and representing the community that we’re serving and to work together and not have an individual agenda.”
Lenty offered a similar perspective, saying board members have to “check our own personal beliefs and thoughts at the door and come to the table being solutions-driven” and creating space for everyone to have a voice.
Zarr said it’s “not my intention to upheave everything that sitting current trustees have done,” and that, “my mission is to make sure that this community and our students are getting the best that they can get.”
Butterworth characterized the issue as a teamwork problem, saying that the newly elected board members of North Idaho College “maybe came in as a slate, but they didn’t operate as a team.” He did not anticipate the same thing happening for CWI’s board “because I think everybody that is running currently will be able to work with whoever ends up on the board.”
REASONS TO VOTE
Candidates gave a variety of answers when asked why they would be the best candidate for their role.
Bradshaw, who has worked in health care for 30 years, said that serving the college for her is about creating the positive change she wants to see in the world.
“It’s a way to help our individuals grow and be confident,” Bradshaw said. “It’s important for us and our economy to be able to have people that are confident and strong in their training.”
Lenty, the current board president, said she wants to continue the work the college is doing to build a skilled workforce, including cultivating relationships with local industry leaders, as well as planning for the future.
“This board has started moving forward some work in focus around our facilities and visioning project,” Lenty said, “and we spent a lot of time in the trenches to really listen and learn and prepare ourselves for big decisions moving forward that are going to best meet the current and future needs of our students, as well as better support our faculty in order to deliver education.”
Zarr said he believes in collaboration and “pulling people together of all different areas … I really truly believe that that is something that I can bring forward, and having this college move forward, and continuing the work that this current trustees board has done.”
Having served on the board of the Nampa Boys & Girls Club, Reames said he has seen the opportunities afforded to locals looking to continue their education. Sometimes, former Boys & Girls Club students have approached him at CWI to say hello, he said.
“CWI has created this amazing, phenomenal platform for people like them and others who want to go back and be somebody,” he said, discussing how the college allows people to train for new careers in less than four years. Reames applied and was appointed in the spring, and is now running for a full two-year term.
Hightower said she is “invested in high quality, affordable education.”
“This college benefits our community, and I want to make sure it’s here to continue benefiting our community for as long as possible,” she said.
Butterworth said his background in the tech industry means he would bring experience as a business leader who knows the value of a quality education to the workforce.
“I believe that I have the skills to help the college move forward with a different perspective,” Butterworth said. “I mean, what we’re doing so far is great, I’m really happy with the results, but I believe we can do more and I think we should do more.”
CUT, MANAGE, OR INCREASE THE BUDGET
On whether candidates believe the college’s budget should be cut, managed, or increased, most candidates present said indicated they would like to see it managed, with Butterworth and Zarr — the two slate candidates present — saying they would prioritize cutting costs.
Reames said the school is on the right path. The school is on its third chief financial officer, and “we’re always getting bigger, better, brighter talent to help support the school where we’re going,” he said. “And so I don’t know that I can answer cut spending, but I would say manage spending, the appropriation of it and how we’re facilitating it. We’re doing a really good job today.”
Hightower also suggested management of the budget.
“I think it’s important for everybody to know (that) for the size of the institution, CWI runs on an incredibly lean budget,” Hightower said, adding that the college has not raised the cost of a credit hour in years. She said it’s also important to ensure that “we’re funding our programs appropriately,” and that her goal would be to “manage the budget as is throughout the years going forward.”
Bradshaw highlighted the low cost of the college to taxpayers, and said she would continue to manage the budget. Reducing costs could mean cutting something, she said.
Lenty seemed to agree management was the appropriate course, saying that cutting the budget would mean cutting programs, or having to raise tuition or fees, which the college has not done for seven years.
“It’s something that we’re really proud about,” she said. “We are running a lean, thoughtful machine that is setting access and affordability as a prime focus for our students.”
Butterworth said he has often looked at reducing spending when he purchased businesses or acted as a consultant. If elected, he said he would take a “deep dive” into looking at “where money has been spent, what programs are good, what’s giving us a great return on our money, what’s not, and that would be my approach to that.”
Zarr said that despite the college’s low property tax levy, “there’s always places where we can look to cut spending.”