Johnson County Community College alums want to stop demolition of school’s track

Some Johnson County Community College alumni are in an uproar over the school’s plan to tear out its widely-used track and field and to dismantle its 32-year-old track program.

The group has taken to social media to accumulate a following to protest the decision, which the college announced more than a year ago as part of its facilities master plan.

“In an attempt to maintain the competitive balance JCCC has experienced over the years, it was decided that the college needed to support fewer programs, which was a factor in the discontinuation of the track program,” JCCC spokesman Chris Gray said this week in an email response to questions from The Star.

Alums have started the website savejccctrack.com to garner support. Hundreds of JCCC alums have commented.

“This is so heartbreaking to see that track and field and cross country are going to be eliminated,” Jara Wilhelm, a JCCC alum posted. “JCCC was where it all started for me and then I went on to throw the javelin at USF (University of Southern Florida) in Tampa, FL. The coaches were amazing and the program provided me with further opportunities that I might not have had otherwise.”

The college said it chose to shut down the program and pull out the track because of financial considerations and because too few students benefit from the dollars spent.

Gray cited a recent bylaws change by Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference to increase scholarship allowances.

He said that because student activity fees fund athletic scholarships, raising scholarship amounts would mean increasing fees on the college’s 20,000 students. Gray said the school didn’t want to raise those fees, which go to support its eight athletic programs, including track, as well as other student clubs and activities.

He pointed out that while 1 percent of students participate in athletics, athletic programs consume 45 percent of the activity fee budget.

Even though activity fees support the track program, Gray said students were not involved in the decision to cut it.

He said administrators made the decision that an athletic program had to go and “unfortunately it was track and field. There are only so much funds. As a comprehensive community college we have to look out for what is best for students as a whole.”

Alums are not satisfied with the school’s explanation.

“We are not buying that one bit, that this is about budget and funding,” said Nick Cole, an alum who ran indoor and outdoor track and cross country in 2004 and 2005.

“Our ultimate goal is to get the college to reconsider shutting down this program and tearing out this track,” Cole said.

But Gray said that is not likely to happen. “This decision was made more than a year ago and we are moving forward,” Gray said. “There isn’t a lot of sway here.”

Alumni argue the school’s decision to tear out the track also hurts the community. Some area high schools don’t have a track of their own.

“Isn’t their purpose supposed to be to help support and grow the community?” Cole asked. Track and field scholarships, he said, have helped a lot of students afford college.

Another alum, Brian Batliner posted on Facebook that he believes the college, which eliminated its tennis program two years ago and this week tore out its tennis courts, is cutting track because “our community college favors buildings and facilities over people and experiences.”

The school master plan calls for building a Career and Technology Education facility near where the tennis courts were.

In place of the track, the school will relocate its soccer and softball fields. It will add parking and a concession space and gates so community groups renting the fields can charge a gate fee.

Gray said the volume of community use on the track compared to other college fields and the relatively small amount of revenue that use generated in rental fees was a small part of the decision to eliminate track and field.

The school’s decision leaves St. Thomas Aquinas High School searching for a new place to practice. The championship high school team has practiced on the JCCC track since 1989.

Sarah Burgess, athletic director at Thomas Aquinas, said that she knew the track was being demolished but hasn’t yet found a new practice spot.

The Olathe and Blue Valley school districts have offered to rent their tracks to Aquinas but they would only be available after 6 p.m. when the home teams were done practicing.

“I think our numbers (of track athletes) will get terribly low,” Burgess said. “This is going to affect us big.”

Others said they felt the college gave up on the track about two years ago.

Chris Torres, head coach for Johnson County Comets Youth Track Club, said his teams have used the track for more than a decade, renting it for $2,000 a season.

But when Torres noticed that “the college stopped putting money into keeping the track up,” he moved practices elsewhere. “Grass was high on the infield, weeds were growing in the long-jump pit.”

He added: “I think what is happening with the outdoor track is that the college has hitched its wagon to soccer and doesn’t want to jeopardize that revenue.”

The whole thing makes Dave Burgess, a retired JCCC track and field coach who built the school’s track program, quite sad. The track team has multiple national championships, multiple All-American athletes and Olympians.

“It’s very disappointing,” he said. “Nobody asked me, but it just seems that maybe there was some other solution, maybe just scale the program back, but save the program.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc