A troubling lack of transparency is hobbling JCCC at a time when it should be celebrating

A guy in mid-15th Century swashbuckler attire beckons you forward and up the walkways of the student center at Johnson County Community College. Rather than his usual feathered chapeau, the cartoon drawing dons an orange hard hat, with arrows pointed to show you how to safely pass through the boarded-up area that will one day be the college’s new front door. The mascot, an English cavalier named Jean Claude, is supposed to represent the grit and determination of students. 

But these days, Jean Claude may just as likely be drawing his sword in self-defense from the onslaught of criticism some recent school decisions have wrought.

There was the highly-publicized cancellation of the track program, followed by a protest walk and demolition of the track. There was a decision on College Now placement that prompted a blistering faculty censure. An audit by the college’s accreditation agency noting concerns about communication. A confrontation with neighbors over a proposed emergency exit through an adjacent park. And most recently, a vote taken just as finals ended that would raise tuition $1 per credit hour next fall.

Through it all, the college has been fighting a reputation for opaqueness. Over the past couple of years, alumni, faculty, and neighbors have complained about late or zero notice about important decisions. Those decisions, they say, are often crafted at committee meetings in which minutes are hard to track down. Even trustee meetings sometimes note important issues like the recent tuition increase under a vague agenda heading the average reader is not likely to notice.

A cavalier attitude, you might say. Good for a mascot. But not what you look for in your local community college. 

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Johnson County Community College is one of the things Johnson County leaders like to bring up when they brag about their quality of life. 

The school, founded by county vote in 1967, sits on 200 acres at College Boulevard and Quivira Road. Today, enrollment is at 18,300 students, and most would agree the school serves the community well. JoCo high schoolers commonly sign up for college-credit classes through JCCC before graduating, or take their first couple of years at the community college to save a little cash. There are a lot of adult learners there too. Once in a while someone — usually a Johnson County old-timer — will make the mistake of referring to JCCC as “juco,” or junior college. But as the school’s president, Joe Sopcich, is always quick to note, JCCC has a national footprint, showing up on some lists of top community colleges in the U.S. Sopcich himself is one of 19 community college presidents on the board of the League for Innovation, a nonprofit group that encourages new ideas in community colleges.

In keeping with its quest for excellence, the school is currently at work on a $110 million building project. It started out as a way to upgrade JCCC’s career and technical education building, which dated all the way back to 1981. Then a consultant was brought in, and things began to snowball. Other building projects were added. Fine arts will soon have its own building. Tutoring centers will be added to the library. The student center will have a new front door facing a parking area, with more of a welcoming common area inside. “We’re just trying to get beyond having the US Bank branch being the first thing people see when they come into the student center,” Sopcich says.

With all this action and all this acclaim, the college should be sailing into its 50th anniversary on a magic carpet. Instead, the building project has been marked throughout by controversy. 

Take the track. Alumni and high school hopefuls said they were blindsided last year when JCCC decided to end its track program. The track, which still appeared in a different location on one of the rough drafts of the building plan, was totally done away with by the time the building plan was voted on. It was demolished a few months later, but not before some alumni and local track advocates started a campaign. There was a website, social media organizing, and a gathering to “walk the track” before it was torn up. Save the Track advocates printed up t-shirts that they wore to the school’s fundraising 5K in October, using a spirit of irony to take Sopcich up on his offer to donate $5 of his own money to the scholarship fund for each person who outran him. 

Looking back now, Brian Batliner, one of the organizers of Save the JCCC Track and a former track team member, says his group tried to plant a seed of positive change at the college. “It was a nice moment,” Batliner says. “It seemed to me we were breaking down some of these barriers.” 

Nevertheless, the school’s position has not changed. Last year, Sopcich said keeping the track program would end up raising students activity fees, which fund sports scholarships. He still says the decision was strategically correct. As for reinstating the program, “That’s an issue for the future. It depends how it could work. It depends on whether or not the trustees would approve it. We’re holding to what we’re doing now as far as our strategy goes.”

Homeowners around Stoll Park near the college also took issue with a different part of the master plan last year when the college asked the county park district for a small connection that would allow cars to leave the campus through the adjacent park in an emergency. The college eventually lost that battle, after residents set their ears on fire about it and the park district voted it down.

The homeowners, remembering secret talks to give the college the park 14 years ago, spent hours telling school officials they doubted their motives and transparency. At one point, a counselor employed by JCCC stood up and said, “I just don’t trust the college.”

For them and others, the objection is not only about the decisions but the way the college goes about them. Cancelling the track program, for example, never appeared as a separate agenda item at a trustee meeting and was voted on under the umbrella of the entire building program. Records of its discussion were sparse to non-existent.

Likewise, a recent vote to increase tuition by $1 per credit hour for Johnson County residents ($2-$3 for those outside the county) happened at the end of the semester under an agenda item on “budget guidelines.” Student Senate President Tiger Harris-Webster says he only heard about it ahead of time because another faculty member mentioned it to him (though Sopcich differs on this, saying he specifically pointed out the proposed increase). 

Most students were taking finals around the time the trustees had their vote, meaning the Student Senate did not have enough time to hold a meeting and form an official opinion beforehand, Harris-Webster says. When it came up at the Dec. 13 trustee meeting, Harris-Webster and Christopher Bergin, another student senator, asked for a delay. But trustees approved it anyway, citing the restrictions of the budget-setting deadlines.

Nowhere was unhappiness with the decision-making process at JCCC felt more keenly than among the math faculty, though. In late 2017, the faculty senate censured administrators who rewrote enrollment requirements on College Now without consulting the faculty. College Now students can earn dual college credit in high school and college if they are approved for the program. The new guidelines allowed high schoolers, in some circumstances, to enroll in math and science courses without showing proficiency through a placement score. Some 417 students were allowed to enroll without meeting proper guidelines, said Beth Edmonds, chair of the math department, in a letter to her colleagues. She went on: 

“I’ve had occasion recently to explore the dictionary to find synonyms that I could use for this situation. Here’s what I found: shocked, exasperated, galled, irritated, annoyed, vexed, angered, infuriated.”

That the administration didn’t collaborate with the faculty was “unsettling” and contributes to the college’s trust issues, Edmonds says in an email to The Pitch, stressing that these are her personal opinions and don’t represent the faculty.

“In all honesty, there are always trust issues,” she says. “This is probably true in any educational institution that does not exercise shared governance.”

But mistrust has been particularly keen since the College Now decision. Edmonds quotes a long-time colleague at JCCC, who says, “I have never experienced a time at JCCC when morale was so low.”

She adds, “Something is truly going on right now where trust and respect are at a low ebb.”

Today, Edmonds says she believes the strongly worded censure, written by another faculty member, at least empowered instructors there to “use their collective voice to communicate through the only channel they had open to them. From that perspective, it should be considered impactful. From the perspective that in the future, JCCC administration may be more thoughtful about its actions, it’s possible this may occur. However, this remains to be seen.”

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Dissatisfaction with the College Now decision rippled into the college’s accreditation audit this year when some faculty members brought it up during the site visit, which was JCCC’s first in 10 years. The result was a recommendation from the Higher Learning Commission that JCCC submit a report this fall updating the commission on how the administration and faculty communicate among themselves and with each other. (The college did, however, get re-accredited.)

Administrators take that seriously, says Sopcich. “We’ll be stronger for it. Our whole attitude about accreditation is they’re going to find things here and it’s an opportunity for us to get better at it and to be stronger. So we welcome their insights.”

In fact, transparency will be improved this spring, when the administration expects to begin putting all committee meeting minutes in one location, says Chris Gray, associate vice president of communications and marketing for JCCC. 

Sopcich concedes there’s always room for improvement. 

“But the other issue is it’s a relatively large organization of about a $150 million budget and almost 3,000 people working here,” he says. “We don’t really screen every decision in a public forum. It’s almost impossible to do.”

Sopcich says his administration stands by its past decisions. All of the decisions were made with the goal of keeping the school safe and student-centered while maintaining standards and competitiveness, Sopcich says. The college hosted listening sessions with Stoll Park neighbors and eventually gave up the access plan, even though it would provide an extra safe exit option, he says. 

Likewise, he says, the tuition increase, taken after three years of no increase, was relatively minor and done to mitigate a bigger increase when the next recession hits. The track decision was also strategic. Sopcich points out the college still invests $6.2 million in athletic facilities that will also be used by the community.

“There’s always going to be displeasure when you say no,” says Gray. “You’re always going to hurt one side when something doesn’t go their way.”

“Nobody likes to have anything cut,” Sopcich says. “But sometimes you can’t do everything.” 

JCCC still get gets high marks in satisfaction in the community and has seen an increase in giving, Gray says. And the comments from the accreditation agency were only one blemish in what was overall a glowing report, he adds.

Batliner says all the conflicts of the past couple of years have been instructive, even though the school still has a ways to go. It’s all served to get the administration’s attention, he says. “My theory is that they’ve sort of been forced to look themselves in the mirror and say, Maybe we do have some changes we need to make here…”

Student president Harris-Webster says he’d like to eventually have a non-voting student body member on the board of trustees. “I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus,” he says. “I believe everyone there really has a heart for the students and for the school to do well. But I don’t believe there are avenues set up that really spread out information very well.” 

On Twitter: @roxiehammill.

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