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Anonymous Transparency Complaint Triggers Probe Into Johnson County Community College Trustee

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Avery Gott
/
KCUR 89.3
About two-thirds of Johnson County Community College's $150 million budget comes from property taxes.

A Johnson County Community College trustee faces censure after an emailed letter detailing a lack of oversight at the school was shared with board members.

It details concerns about a myriad of financial policies and claims the school’s art collection is worth twice what the school has published. Some board members worry the letter itself adds to growing concerns about transparency.

“The purpose of this email is to ask for change,” the letter reads. “We can prevent boards from blocking information and controlling access of other board members.”

The board responded to the allegations with line-by-line responses, denying or justifying the statements in the letter. As part of the response, trustee Jerry Cook wrote the letter’s content is, “not only inaccurate but hurtful.”

JCCC’s internal auditor, Justin McDaid, said his team vetted the letter and found nothing credible.

A lack of transparency

"The most ironic part of this whole thing is the advocacy for transparency," said Trustee Greg Musil. "We need more transparency, but I’m not going to tell you my name."

Each board member has denied writing the anonymous note, except Trustee Angeliina Lawson. The public version of the letter doesn't name the sender, but the information in the letter combined with Lawson's refusal to state whether or not she wrote it have led the board to assume she is the author. 

Two school administrators even filed an ethics complaint against Lawson because the content of the letter targeted them and their departments.

“Bruce Hartman and I have submitted an ethics point complaints asking that all communication become written,” Foundation Vice President Kate Allen said. “And, frankly, for public retraction of those comments for those employees that have not done anything wrong.”

Because of that complaint, Lawson was removed from a committee posting and is facing a censure investigation. 

KCUR obtained an original copy of the letter through an open records request, which confirms that Lawson is the original author. But, she said she can’t fully claim writing it.

“I compiled some of the sources in this, but the question of, you know, 'Did I write this?' comes from the wrong direction,” Lawson said.

She said her letter is a compilation of questions from constituents that she sent at the request of Kansas state lawmakers. Lawson claims those representatives, though the declined to name them, also solicited the same information from other community college trustees.

Heather Morgan, the executive director of the Kansas Association of Community College Trustees, said no one had contacted her about that possibility. 

Lawson said she was surprised when the board published the letter, and she emphasized employees named in it should not have been exposed to public criticism.

“I’m not understanding the process as to how this happened,” Lawson said. “Who authorized the spread of an email that’s sensitive?”

Ongoing issues

It isn’t the first time the school has struggled with transparency issues. In 2016, the board voted for a multi-year construction plan to renovate the campus, inadvertently cutting the track program at the same time.

“The fact that the track program was cut is not just about the track program,” Former Assistant Coach Brian Batliner, said. “It’s evidence of deeper issues at the college.”

Then in 2018, the board voted to increase tuition despite a steady rise in property tax income. Faculty Association President Melanie Harvey said they should have talked to students before increasing tuition.

“We’ve had a lot of concern about a lack of respect for voices of faculty and staff and students and community members,” Harvey said. “These groups’ input is not valued when sometimes often they’re most impacted by the decisions being made.”

Harvey said the board has repeatedly failed to talk with community stakeholders.

The latest controversy comes while the school is searching for its next president. Current President Joe Sopcich is retiring, and the appearance of transparency problems could affect its ability to draw a competitive candidate pool.

“While the submission of this document marks an unfortunate moment in the history of the JCCC Trustees,” Trustee Cook wrote, “We embrace the opportunity to highlight not only the facts but the wonderful students, employees and programs that make our institution so special.” 

Avery Gott is a news intern at KCUR.

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