Trustee Candidates Clash Over Tuition and Transparency At Johnson County Community College
The Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees race, which is non-partisan and typically quiet, has been highly contentious this year. Six candidates, including two incumbents, are running for three open spots on the board of the $150 million community college.
Student enrollment is trending down due to low unemployment in the county, leading the school to rely on income from property taxes for 65% of its budget.
But, the unusually competitive race is in the spotlight because of two highly controversial decisions from the board — the elimination of track program and a $1 per credit hour tuition increase.
Faculty Association President Melanie Harvey said both of those issues are examples of a lack of “transparency,” a word that has come to define the race.
“It really wasn’t about the dollar, it was the way they went about it,” Harvey said. “It’s really about including people in the process.”
The Faculty Association has endorsed three candidates, Lori Bell, Colleen Cunningham and Laura Smith-Everett. Harvey said the association chose candidates who would respect student and teacher input.
Former student and Assistant Coach Brian Batliner with Save JCCC Track also agrees that the board needs to consider public opinion in their decisions.
“The fact that the track program was cut was not just about the track program,” Batliner said. “It’s evidence of deeper issues at the college. There’s no real process of transparency in place.”
He said the board did not allow public input before passing the plan to bulldoze the track and take the program with it.
Though some candidates have questioned the way that decision was made, Batliner’s organization has not endorsed any candidates because he doesn’t think that any of them would have acted differently.
Harvey and Batliner also share a concern that there is a partisan split down the middle of the six candidates. The two incumbents, Greg Musil and Nancy Ingram, are running a joint campaign with attorney Jameia Haines, who has signaled her support for the current board by joining the incumbents in the race.
Though voters can choose any three of the six non-partisan candidates, the team of three suggests that voters must choose one ticket: Republicans Haines, Ingram and Musil or Democrats Bell, Cunningham and Smith-Everett.
“It makes it tough because now we look like we’re endorsing one party over another rather than what’s best for the college,” Batliner said.
While Harvey and Batliner have criticized the trio for splitting the race into two partisan tickets, Greg Musil said in an email that it is “hypocritical” to criticize the joint campaign when Democratic groups were distributing flyers for the eight other candidates before the primary.
Ingram noted that the three Republicans were not included in a candidate panel over the summer, and Haines said though they are running as a slate, they are all individual candidates.
The three candidates endorsed by Democratic organizers, Bell, Cunningham and Smith-Everett have also faced criticism for allegedly supporting free tuition. All three have refuted that claim and instead said that they support looking at options to make the college more affordable without increasing property tax demands.
In a Facebook post, Bell called the accusation “mud-slinging” and said she believes free tuition could negatively impact JCCC.
Student opinion on the campus is mixed, according to Student Senate Secretary Michael Stonebarger. He said that though the board has not established an official student liaison, Student Senate President Ankeet Prasai has a positive relationship with President Joseph Sopcich and the Board of Trustees.
The Student Senate did not endorse any candidates, but Stonebarger said they did vote on which qualities they were looking for in the next three trustees.
“We wanted somebody who’s well-rounded, preferably with a history of community involvement,” he said. “Somebody who will continually promote racial diversity and cultural representation.”
Also on the Student Senate’s list of desired qualities was someone who would respect student opinion and be transparent.
Lori Bell is a Kansas City native. She served in the Air Force before attending three community colleges while working full time. She later got her master’s degree at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, and worked as a bank auditor. Her husband and her son also took classes at JCCC.
Today, Bell is a consultant. She said the board is missing the voice of people who, like her, attended community college.
“Community college was really made for the non-traditional student,” Bell said. “I’m running because I want to see incentives for the students who are not (earning) 3.0 (GPA), they should be getting scholarships and opportunities just as much as students who do get a 3.0 and above.”
Colleen Cunningham moved to Overland Park to teach special education After getting her master’s degree. She comes from a low-income background and credits public school with her educational success. Now, Cunningham is active in volunteer groups including Moms Demand Action and Girl Scouts.
If she is elected to the board, she said she wants to focus on promoting equitable and affordable education and improving communication with faculty and students. She said in a panel hosted by the Faculty Association in August that she would not support any tuition increases during her tenure.
“The Higher Learning Commission was tasked with studying the college and has found levels of trust in the administration on the part of faculty declining,” Cunningham wrote in an email.
Jameia Haines is a real estate attorney and has two children who both take classes at JCCC. She grew up in Holton, Kansas, and got her undergraduate education at Kansas State University.
Haines said if elected she would support the strategic goals of the campus and expand the school’s trade-based education. Haines has emphasized that students are her top priority, which she said means maintaining communication with community stakeholders.
“As the college celebrates 50 years, we need to think about the next 50 years and what does that look like,” Haines said.
She said she would focus on the “continued pursuit of relevant education offerings that prepare students for jobs of the future and are responsive to the workforce needs of our community.”
Nancy Ingram is one of two incumbents running for reelection. She joined the board in 2015 and since that time she established “Bridge To Connect,” a partnership to provide mental health counseling to students between Olathe Public Schools, where she volunteers, and JCCC. Ingram said she will continue to focus on students’ mental health resources.
In a panel hosted by the Faculty Association in August, Ingram said she agreed that communication between the board and the community needs to improve. She said if she is reelected her priority will be working with community members.
“The biggest is really the collaboration piece and keeping mindful of what the community needs and wants when it comes to workforce development.” Ingram said.
Greg Musil has served on the JCCC board for eight years. He is an attorney specializing in real estate, zoning and business litigation and he served on the Overland Park City Council from 1993 to 2001.
Musil said he wants decrease the property tax burden on Johnson County homeowners and, like Haines and Ingram, he wants to expand trade education at the college. If reelected, Musil said he wants to counter the role social media has played in the recent controversies over communication and encourage civil dialouge over policy decisions.
“On a college campus we ought to be able to discuss issues reasonably, rationally, respectfully, etcetera and come to a decision that, even if I disagree with it, I’m not picking at people about it," Musil said.
Laura Smith-Everett has been an educator in Johnson County for 17 years and at one time taught continuing education at JCCC. She attended the University of Kansas and is currently an ESL teacher in the Shawnee-Mission school district.
Smith-Everett, like Cunningham above, has pledged not to raise tuition during her tenure on the board. She said should she be elected her top priority is improving communication between the administration and the school community.
“The current board has some work to do around communication and transparency,” Smith-Everett said. “In several cases, just asking and prompting the current administration, who makes most of those decisions and really looking into the way that we provide community college with the lowest financial burden to our students as possible.”
Avery Gott is a news intern at KCUR (and was recently a student at Johnson County Community College).