The board that governs Johnson County Community College is not, typically, a high-profile contest. In normal political times, average county residents might not even be aware of the existence of the college board of trustees.
“A lot of times we don’t even realize those are elected positions,” said Val Baul of Shawnee, a candidate.
In fact, it’s hard to remember the last time a trustee position even had a primary, some say. Greg Musil, a current trustee running for re-election, thinks it was sometime in the early 1990s.
But this year is not, apparently, normal times. Eleven people are running for college trustee on the August ballot. The winners will go on to November for final decisions on who will fill three seats.
Except for Musil and Nancy Ingram, the two incumbents seeking re-election, most of the candidates are relative newcomers. Five have never run for an office before and three more ran unsuccessfully for trustee or another office in the past couple of years.
“I was a little surprised myself,” at the number of candidates, said Laura Smith-Everett another candidate. “I think there were lots of people talking about this idea that these positions are really important.”
There are a variety of reasons for all the buzz this year, but a common theme is that the top-level federal elections have energized more people to run. “Since Trump has been elected I really sat back and have just watched a lot of things around me changing politically,” said candidate Lori Bell. The changes she saw moved her to run. “I think there are just more people afraid to continue to let things go the way they are so more people are trying to get involved.”
Musil said that county Democrats and a faculty group have also actively sought candidates to run. Leaders of the Johnson County Democratic Party said the party has played no role in recruiting candidates for the race.
Tuition, tax rate and athletics programs have drawn attention
Crowded field for JCCC Board
Here’s a quick look at who’s running for JCCC Board of Trustees this cycle. The Post has sent each candidate a questionnaire and will run their responses later.
• Farha Azaz, Overland Park
• Mo Azeem, Olathe, owner of software development company
• Val Baul, Shawnee, Kansas driver’s license coordinator Mission office
• Lori Bell, Olathe, technology and compliance consultant
• Colleen Cunningham, Overland Park, stay-at-home mom
• Jameia Haines, Overland Park, lawyer
• Nancy Ingram, Leawood, ending first term on the JCCC board
• Greg Musil, Overland Park, lawyer, ending second term on the JCCC board.
• Cassandra Peters, Olathe, operations clerk at an office and runs a social support group for LGBTQ youth
• Chris Roesel, Roeland Park, retired Women, Infants and Children program manager
• Laura Smith-Everett, Shawnee, educator.
But interest in the national race isn’t the only reason. JCCC has been under fire at various times the past couple of years for closing the track program, raising tuition and reducing the property tax rate. In addition, its president, Joe Sopcich, took some heat for reports on an overheard argument with a trustee on the relative affluence of students. And nearby neighbors of the college resoundingly voiced distrust of the college when they learned of its efforts to build an emergency exit point from campus that would lead through Thomas S. Stoll Memorial Park.
Smith-Everett called the situation a “perfect storm” for bringing out more candidates.
Every candidate had something to say about the race. But first, some background:
Seven members, elected at-large sit on the governing board of the college for four-year terms. They have final say over the budget and policy issues, as well as setting the rate for the college’s share of property tax bills.
This year incumbents Musil and Nancy Ingram are running for re-election. Trustee David Lindstrom is not running again.
The Post contacted 10 of the candidates for this story. Azaz did not return calls and a campaign website under her name was listed as under construction (see update below).
Tuition and transparency were top issues for most of the challengers. The college voted last December to raise tuition by $1 a credit hour, bringing the fee for Johnson County residents to $94. It was the first tuition increase in three years, and trustees said at the time they were worried about flat state aid, declining enrollment and the increasing burden on property taxes.
But some challengers have had a problem with that. A few months before the tuition vote, the board decided to roll back its tax rate because rising property values would bring in more money than the school needed.
That didn’t sit well with some candidates, who said the money lost in the roll-back could have made the tuition increase unnecessary.
In fact several would be willing to go farther and explore an idea that’s been touted by presidential candidates to make community college tuition free.
Although it’s an idea whose details still need to be worked out, some candidates say they’d definitely at least explore it if elected.
“It would benefit the county,” said candidate Chris Roesel. “What I see at the college is that many buildings have been built but the quality of the faculty is not increased, their pay is not increased.”
Smith-Everett also was troubled by the increase’s impact on families that plan for years in advance on how they’ll pay for college. “One of the things I’m going to commit to is at the very minimum not raising fees or tuition for four years.” she said. In the long term, Smith-Everett suggested the board look into whether JCCC could cover two years free for county residents by keeping a constant tax rate as property values rise.
Baul called the tuition on county residents a form of “double taxation.” She said she’d like to keep the mill levy constant and offer college for $1 a credit hour for Johnson Countians.
“The people that actually see the savings of that mill levy cut are rich property developers who own commercial property in Johnson County,” she said.
However it should be noted that not every challenger is necessarily on board with free tuition. Some, like Mo Azeem, said tuition needs a fresh and careful look, “to make sure anyone who want to attend Johnson County Community College has a path to do it and it doesn’t come down to how much money they have or if their family can support them,” but didn’t go the extra step for free tuition. He said the college should also look at other programs like grants and aid to make college more affordable.
Candidate Colleen Cunningham said, “I don’t know how feasible it is at this point but I think it’s a great long-term goal.”
She said the college should better understand the financial struggles of its students before raising tuition. Cunningham came from a low-income family and was able to go to college because of grants, loans and multiple part-time jobs, she said. “It seems like students shouldn’t be put in the position of having to choose between affording food and affording tuition. They shouldn’t have to struggle quite that much.”
Another challenger, Jameia Haines said she agreed with the board’s tuition and related tax rate decisions because state aid has not kept up and enrollment numbers are low. She would have voted with the board on both those issues, she said. She was also skeptical that free tuition could be done sustainably.
Musil gave a spirited defense of the tuition and mill rate decisions. Over the years, property taxes have accounted for an increasing slice of the school’s revenue while tuition has gone the other way, he said. Even with the roll-back, Musil said the school will get $4 million more in new property tax revenue. The roll-back saved taxpayers $1.6 million.
“One dollar per credit hour increase for an average of $7.60 a student isn’t an unfair request,” he said.
Transparency of board dealings getting scrutiny
Transparency in how the board makes its decisions was another theme running through issues like the track program and tuition increase. Several candidates said the college needs to improve the way it communicates with students, faculty and the community.
An example is the closing of the track and cross country program that had been in place over 30 years. Alumni and track advocates said they were surprised by the decision and thought the school should have provided better notice to the public.
The problem with the track and other issues has been in the timing of the notices and the fact that the decisions are often hashed out in various committees before reaching the full board. The tuition increase came up at final exam week making it hard for students to respond. And the track was not listed as its own item on agendas but was part of a bigger building plan.
“We all should have been part of the decision and the board should have at the very least entertained other ideas and options aside from demolishing the track,” said candidate Cassandra Peters.
“The board tends to be just a rubber stamp for whatever the administration says,” Baul said. “I’d like the board to actually take some accountability and dive into what the administration is actually doing.” Committee and board meetings are often scheduled during a work day, when it’s impossible for most people to attend, she said.
Roesel called the track decision “extremely stupid.” He said the administration should have sought out more input from a variety of people. “I think it was done that way due to sloppiness,” he said.
Incumbent Nancy Ingram said cutting the track program was a painful vote for her. “I hope to never have to cut another program,” she said, but the committee discussions showed it was for the greater good of the school. “It’s a hard thing to do but sometimes those are the kinds of decisions you just have to shoulder.”
Musil said track advocates’ objections often overwhelmed the substantive discussion, namely that the school was spending $450,000 a year on 40 to 50 students. He said all of the discussions were in public meetings but, “looking back in hindsight, could there have been different notice, better notice? Probably.” Still, he argued that committee agendas are out there for those who are interested.
“What’s frustrating to me is candidates or individuals who didn’t seem to care about the college until a decision was made that they were upset about (saying) ‘I didn’t have any input.’”
The tuition increase and transparency of decisions were the most often mentioned reasons candidates say they want a spot on the board. But there were also a few others. A few mentioned bringing more diversity so the board will look more like the community.
“They are great humanitarian lawyers who represent Johnson County real estate, and if that’s what you want toward the future of Johnson County and toward the future of America, well we’ve got it,” Roesel said.
Roesel said his status as a JCCC student makes him a good fit for the job, and Baul pointed out she is a graduate of JCCC. Azeem said he has a good understanding of international students’ issues, as an immigrant from Pakistan who is now a citizen. Cassandra Peters said she’d like to re-establish an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the school. Colleen Cunningham said the board should include someone like herself, because she understands the problems of low-income households, having grown up in one herself.
And there were a few other issues mentioned as well. Baul said the school should change the name of the Carlsen Center. Its namesake, former president Charles Carlsen, retired in 2006 following allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward a female employee. The allegations were never proven.
The Campus Ledger, JCCC’s school newspaper has editorialized for his name to be removed from the performing arts center.
Azeem said he’d like to bring attention to the science and tech programs to help graduates become more employable.
And Peters said she’d like to see the board reach out to more businesses so there would be more competition for bids.
UPDATE: Azaz’s campaign said they had technical difficulties with the phone line set up for her run, which prevented messages from getting through. Azaz is a mother of three who moved to Kansas in 1997 to work for Cerner. She holds a master’s degree in computer science. Azaz said she was drawn to run for the board in part by a desire to ensure JCCC could serve as a path to higher education, particularly in STEM fields.
“Growing up in a family of educators, I experienced education as a tool of community uplift,” she said. “I want to be a part of the journey of student growth, and a friendly face to those who feel like outsiders. I came to America more than 2 decades ago in pursuit of higher education, so I can relate to the challenges students face. I feel I have more to give back to the education community that has given us all so much.”