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An Idaho community college faces closure due to criticism from conservative trustees

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police three years ago, a lot of colleges issued statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement - among them, a small community college in ultraconservative north Idaho. The resulting backlash set off a chain of events that might now result in that college closing its doors. Northwest Public Broadcasting's Lauren Paterson reports.

LAUREN PATERSON, BYLINE: North Idaho College is a two-year school with a campus on the picturesque shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene. It offers degrees in things like dental hygiene and diesel technology. But when the school's diversity council expressed support for Black Lives Matter and other causes, conservatives charged educators were pushing a liberal agenda, conservatives like Todd Banducci, a college trustee.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "IDAHO SPEAKS")

TODD BANDUCCI: Those agendas are being woven into the curriculum. And, you know, who controls the kids, who controls their minds, who controls the college student, you know, controls the voter of the future and controls the populace.

PATERSON: Banducci was speaking on a podcast called "Idaho Speaks." He doesn't talk to mainstream media and declined an interview request for this story. The local Republican Party helped get a majority that agrees with Banducci on the college's board following the statement supporting BLM. When the college president imposed a mask mandate in 2021, they fired him. They then put his replacement on administrative leave when he questioned their ethics in hiring. Dozens of faculty and staff have since left. Now the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities is reviewing the school's accreditation.

BRIAN SEGUIN: So for those in the community who were thinking that everything's going to be fine and that there are guardrails in place, there are not.

PATERSON: Brian Seguin is a librarian who's quitting at the end of the semester.

SEGUIN: There's, you know, conspiracy that has been woven by this board, with mentions of a deep state and liberal indoctrination, that folks have completely bought into and has made our jobs very difficult.

PATERSON: NIC has about 4,500 students. Patrick Murphy (ph), a nurse who graduated from the college, says the local hospital, Kootenai Health, relies on the school.

PATRICK MURPHY: A lot of people, especially, like, from my nursing class, you know, they got hired right out of nursing school to go work at Kootenai. And NIC in general is a pretty big labor pool for this area.

PATERSON: North Idaho College is also important to Native American students from the Coeur d'Alene Reservation, which is located on the lake nearby.

VICTOR BEGAY: Tribal communities tend to be very communal, so lots of people rely on each other. So the idea of going far away to college really is antithetical to the idea of a Native community.

PATERSON: Victor Begay taught American Indian studies at NIC before leaving last year. He says most Native students start at two-year schools.

BEGAY: It'd be a great loss. But even more so, I think the financial, the economic toll would be felt decades, if not one or two generations down.

PATERSON: Christie Wood served on NIC's board of trustees for 18 years before resigning last year. She's also on the Coeur d'Alene City Council and says she's heartbroken that the school's future is at risk.

CHRISTIE WOOD: We're an example of what can happen. We're a tragic example. When people put their politics before a community, lives are going to be affected by this.

PATERSON: The commission in charge of accreditation is visiting the campus at the end of the month. It's expected to decide whether to withdraw accreditation this summer. If it does, students could lose federal financial aid, and the school could be forced to close.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Paterson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDORF'S "CIGARETTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Paterson / NWPB