COEUR d'ALENE - A question about partisanship is the one that most clearly divided North Idaho College trustee candidates participating in Tuesday's forum held on the college's downtown campus.
Eight contenders running for three seats on the college's board of trustees squared off Tuesday during a forum held on campus and hosted by the Associated Students of North Idaho College, NIC's student government organization.
A written question, one of several fielded from audience members, asked the candidates if they felt the nonpartisan nature of community college trustee elections is important. It also asked those who have chosen to run from a partisan position to explain why.
Incumbent Judy Meyer, a longtime NIC trustee, said she feels there is no place for partisanship at a community college.
"We need to represent and serve all folks, of all flavors, at all times. I have nothing more to say except that it is nonpartisan," Meyer said.
Meyer's challenger for Seat A, Paul Matthews, a Rathdrum architect, strongly disagreed. He said in answering questions, he's sharing his thoughts, values and beliefs, and subsequently his political views.
"I absolutely would like to know of each and every one of these candidates, where are they coming from politically," Matthews said. "Essentially this is a taxing district that's pretty important. I don't think that's at all inconsistent with doing your due diligence and researching everyone up here."
Mic Armon, who has served on the NIC board for 12 years, said community college trustee positions are nonpartisan by Idaho statute.
He said he is politically active, but his party affiliation does not come into play on the NIC board.
"I don't represent the Democrats. I don't represent the Republicans. I represent the Kootenai County residents and the students, staff and faculty of this institution," Armon said.
Armon is being challenged for Seat B by Todd Banducci. Forum organizers reported that Banducci declined to attend the forum.
Banducci, Matthews and Ron Nilson, who is running for Seat C, have all been endorsed by the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans group.
Fritz Weidenhoff, a Northern Lakes firefighter and one of five candidates running for Seat C, pointed out that he recently ran for a leglislative position in the Republican primary, so people know where he stands politically.
Seat C is now held by Ron Vieselmeyer, who announced he is not seeking re-election.
"I believe the partisan politics are designed mostly for a legislative level, where there are two groups or more groups that work things out, as parties do," Wiedenhoff said. "A board of trustees, with five people, there is just no place for it. You just have to listen to all the residents, taxpayers and the community you serve in a nonpartisan fashion."
Nilson said he realizes the NIC trustee position is nonpartisan.
"I believe that my conservative nature, and what I stand for, is a Republican, and I'm proud to say I'm a Republican," Nilson said.
By acknowledging his political belief, Nilson said he's letting people know that he shares in "conservative values with accountability and transparency."
The remaining Seat C candidates at the forum, Vickie Ambrosetti, Gary Coffman and Dean Haagenson, all said they feel the trustee positions should remain nonpartisan.
James Ruch, another Seat C candidate, declined to attend the forum.
There was general consensus among the forum participants on several issues.
Most of those asked about the importance of the education corridor said they felt the purchase of the mill site adjacent to the college was a good investment and crucial to the future growth of NIC.
A question about the value of professional-technical education revealed that all the candidates believe it is important.
Seat C candidate Nilson, one of the founders of KTEC, the new public professional-technical high school in Rathdrum, said NIC needs to increase the presence of PTE programs at NIC.
"This is a country that continues to grow in manufacturing and other skill sets... these are the PTE jobs of tomorrow," Nilson said.
Dean Haagenson, another candidate vying for Seat C and a community member who helped develop KTEC, said PTE programs are an essential element of community colleges.
"That cannot be at the expense of academic students who represent 80 percent of the students at NIC," Haagenson said.
A question about the importance of online education showed that nearly every candidate believes strongly that it's time to embrace distance education and work to integrate it further into the community college system.
Gary Coffman, a Seat C candidate who retired two years ago from NIC after 33 years of employment in student services, said NIC has been developing its online programming for years, and it's an important part of the way NIC delivers programs.
"But it's not the end-all that a lot of people want it to be," Coffman said. "From the students' perspective it provides opportunities for students that might not otherwise have access to education. That's why it's so important, but there are many students that it's not a good fit for."
NIC is governed by a five-member board of trustees, who are elected at-large from within Kootenai County for staggered terms. All positions are four-year terms.
The complete two-hour forum was recorded and it will be aired on public access channel 19.