All year, members of the Save JCCC Track group fought what Johnson County Community College officials have long said is an irreversible decision: the dissolution of the college’s track and cross-country programs and the demolition of the outdoor track and field on campus.
The group planned to show up to the college’s Lace Up For Learning 5K race this Sunday sporting “Save JCCC Track” T-shirts. School President Joe Sopcich had pledged to personally donate $5 toward JCCC scholarships for every runner who beat him that day.
“For us it was a sticking point, or a slap in the face, that the president is a runner, he understands the sport and he understands events that can raise money,” said Brian Batliner, a founding member of the group. “We thought what a great way to draw attention to that and showcase the irony. … Here are alums and community members who have been asking for 10 months for a solution.”
But on Thursday, a backhoe and a bright red truck appeared on the Johnson County Community College track.
Demolition had begun.
College officials say plans to cut the track and cross-country programs and remove the outdoor track are part of a facilities master plan created more than two years ago. But the decision has ignited community members who learned of the elimination in January, when several alums of the track program formed the Save JCCC Track group.
They say the program changed their lives — providing athletic and academic opportunity for countless alums and a reliable place to train for community members. And it also created a schism between those who say JCCC leaders ignored and disregarded their efforts to find alternatives and administrators who say eliminating the programs is an example of a “difficult” decision made to better serve the larger campus.
In several emails this spring that the Save JCCC Track group shared with The Star, members and college Vice President Randy Weber wrote about meeting to discuss the track.
Batliner, an alum and former assistant coach of the track program, said the group had lined up stakeholders to meet with school officials, including local high school coaches who were willing to take a half-day to talk with school officials. Hundreds of alumni were expressing their support for the program on savejccctrack.com and a public Facebook page, and others spoke out against the decision at board meetings.
Weber made it clear the board had no intention of reconsidering its decision.
“Nothing said in this meeting will alter the decision made over 12 months ago,” Weber wrote in March.
Save JCCC Track member Nick Cole responded: “It should come as no surprise that we do not wish to meet if you, your Chairman, the administration, and the Board are unwilling to even attempt to consider the ideas and concerns of key program stakeholders,” said Cole, who ran indoor and outdoor track and cross-country in 2004 and 2005.
The meeting never happened.
School officials have said eliminating the 33-year-old track and field program will allow the college to better support seven remaining sports and keep down student fees, many of which fund athletic scholarships. The outdoor track is used less than baseball and soccer facilities, they say, and the school has decided to invest in a new soccer facility and newly updated baseball fields.
“When we weigh the impact of student funding and overall impact on the campus population as a whole versus the estimated 50 athletes annually with the track and cross-country programs (although important) that has to be a factor in our decision moving forward when we compare to all the other student clubs and organizations we have and/or want to enhance or add,” college spokesman Chris Gray said in an email.
But as dozens of individuals wrote letters to board members and school officials asking the college to save the program and a few hundred supporters rallied at a “Walk the JCCC Track” event in early March, college emails indicate that school officials thought the biggest downside of saving the track program was setting the precedent that college decisions are subject to a “public referendum.”
In a March email sent to board trustees, Sopcich said that the college would be forced to raise student fees to fund scholarships for roughly 50 track students and cover any growing costs associated with supporting future students. He also said relocating the track would cost the college at least $2 million.
He also urged the board to stay the course and resist those who encouraged trustees to change their minds.
“You have been strategically targeted,” Sopcich wrote. “And you will continue to be targeted as long as they feel there is opportunity to reverse the decision.”
In the email, Sopcich said that eliminating the program was an “unfortunate” decision but represented the “right thing for the long-term viability of our athletic department, current and future students, and our community.
“Such a reversal regarding the track will be a clear signal to the campus community and community at large that a couple of people can influence operational decisions, including personnel, and ultimately change the future direction of this College to accommodate their self-interest.”
Batliner said he and other Save JCCC Track members didn’t see their efforts as unreasonable.
“It’s about drawing attention to the fact that there were other solutions,” he said, such as community fundraising. “We still believe there are other solutions and we just want a seat at the table,” he said. “It’s not right that we have to put this much effort in as a community to be heard.”
Gray said that the track’s demolition date was planned for more than 12 months as part of a construction schedule that includes other projects..
“JCCC is not considering reinstating the programs that were discontinued last academic year nor keeping the current track facility which is currently being removed as of October 11 and should be complete by October 13,” he said.
College emails also indicated that school administrators did not want the track to remain standing before Sunday’s Lace Up for Learning Race around the campus.
“An important request is to have the physical track demolished prior to this race,” a facilities administrator said in an email on Aug. 21.
Batliner said he was aware that demolition was scheduled for October. He said the group’s efforts will not end once the track is removed.
“We believe that it was not the right decision to cut the program and demolish the track, so therefore we will push forward with a solution for the track program, whatever that might be,” he said.