The letter, a remarkable document, was a serious cry of desperation wrapped inside a legal argument. What kind of response it will or should get is something people all over Idaho should think about.
The message dated May 1 came from Tarie A. Zimmerman, a member of the elected governing board for North Idaho College, and addressed to the state Board of Education:
“During my brief tenure on the NIC Board, it has been controlled by a three-member majority that appear to be determined to destroy NIC. I have worked, to the best of my ability, to combat these efforts, but to no avail. We are at a critical point and without intervention from Idaho State Board of Education … I believe accreditation will be lost forever.”
That strong language is not hyperbole. The only way the actions of the governing majority on that board make any sense is if they specifically are intended to demolish the 90-year-old community college. The whole gory story of those activities is book-length at this point.
Conditions — caused not by administrators, teachers, students or finances but rather specifically the extremist majority on the governing board — have reached the point that NIC’s accreditation may be yanked within a few months, which could mark the effective end of the college. (A speculation: It might also allow the beautiful lakeside campus to be sold off for commercial development, making someone a mint, but that’s another subject.)
Zimmerman asked: Can something, anything, be done to keep the college from being deliberately driven off the cliff? Her words: “this letter is a request that the Board take action to intervene in the governance and affairs of NIC to prevent NIC’s impending loss of accreditation.”
The state board apparently has not even responded to the letter, much less acted on it.
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The usual rule is that elected officials (like the NIC board) have more authority than appointed ones (like the state board) because theirs comes right from the voters. The campaign to elect the extremists on the NIC board didn’t argue in favor of killing the college, but given the dynamics of the races and the board’s recent history, what has happened should be no surprise. Would it be reasonable to say that if the voters want to destroy the college, they should be able to?
How about a K-12 counterpart, if a local school board majority wanted to do what the NIC board has done, and basically end schools in a school district? (That isn’t an implausible scenario these days.) State takeovers of local public schools have happened, starting in New Jersey in 1989, with more than half of all states later passing laws allowing for state takeovers.
Short of that, Zimmerman suggested (in a well-crafted legal argument) the state board take over NIC administration at least while accreditation is under review, on grounds the board is responsible for “general supervision of the state educational institutions” per the Idaho Constitution.
What exactly “general supervision” means may be harder to say. In December, a statement from the board opined, “By statute, Idaho community colleges are governed by locally elected boards of trustees, not the State Board of Education.”
But beyond the legal question sits something larger: Does a group of people in Idaho, through their election choices, have the right to put the torch to education in the state? Should state government, charged with overseeing education in the state, simply stand by and do nothing?
The Idaho Constitution (Article IX, Section 1) says “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” The reference specifically is to public schools, not colleges, but surely the principle applies to higher education as well.
Will the constitution and the statutes be read as the enabler of an education suicide pact?