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Lawmakers threaten lawsuit to stop Phoenix purchase

A brick wall with  University of Idaho in gold letters written on it with the date 1889 above it.
Richard Rodriguez
Boise State Public Radio

In a resolution unveiled Thursday, lawmakers are threatening a lawsuit opposing the University of Idaho’s proposed University of Phoenix purchase.

The bipartisan resolution, in the works for weeks, comes as the U of I and Phoenix hope to close the controversial $685 million deal. It also sets up a high-stakes political showdown — pitting lawmakers against Gov. Brad Little and the State Board of Education, who support the Phoenix purchase.

On of the bill’s two co-sponsors did not pass judgment on the merits of the Phoenix purchase — but he decried the State Board’s series of closed-door meetings that left lawmakers in the dark.

“Process matters to me,” said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, during a brief hearing unveiling the motion. “We were not dealt into this process at all.”

“This seems to me like this was a purchase by ambush,” said Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, who is co-sponsoring the bill.

The House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to introduce the resolution. That sets the stage for a full public hearing in committee.

The resolution Thursday urges the State Board to “reconsider” its May 18 vote endorsing the purchase, and reconsider any affiliation linking the U of I and Phoenix “unless and until the Legislature enacts a law authorizing such actions.”

The threat of a lawsuit comes at the end of the three-page resolution. House Speaker Mike Moyle and Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder would be assigned to work on the Legislature’s behalf, with authority that includes “the initiation of appropriate legal action.”

The U of I has said Phoenix’s national operations would provide millions of dollars of new annual revenues, and the U of I has also touted the chance to leverage Phoenix’s online education platforms. The U of I has minimized the risks of the purchase, saying any losses would be limited to about $10 million a year. The U of I has acknowledged, but also has downplayed, the pitfalls of acquiring a for-profit partner with a checkered history.

U of I officials began to quietly pursue a Phoenix purchase more than a year ago. But lawmakers — and most Idahoans — knew nothing about the proposal until May 17, when the State Board scheduled its first and only public meeting to discuss the idea.

Since then, some lawmakers have openly questioned the merits of the purchase, while complaining that they were cut out of the process. The budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held an unusual oversight hearing in June, grilling U of I and State Board leaders about the proposal.

Here’s a timeline and history of the proposal.

This story was written by Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News.

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