Michael Ryan

Could Democrats pushing free tuition take control of Johnson County Community College?

One observer calls it a potential “holy war” in Johnson County.

What would normally be a sleepy primary election Tuesday in the lazy days of summer could detonate into an unprecedented partisan battle for control of Johnson County Community College.

Most ominous for county property owners, a handful of the 11 candidates for three JCCC Board of Trustees seats are open to making the college free or nearly free — and shifting tens of millions in tuition costs onto already-burdened property taxpayers.

Activists in both local parties blame each other for making the nonpartisan races at JCCC and various municipalities more partisan.

While saying neither party is to blame, county GOP Chair Dave Myres allows that, “Democrats are working hard at recruiting candidates for local races as a means to further impose their radical socialist agenda on the community.”

Johnson County Democratic Chair Nancy Leiker says the party didn’t put out a call for candidates, though some other group might have, but that “it’s exciting to see so much interest.”

North Johnson County Democratic Women’s President Anne Pritchett says she doesn’t know who might have been behind any coordinated effort to get out Democratic candidates, but that she was actually called and asked to run and knows of some who were called three times.

Republican officials say Democratic mobilizing, which resulted in a whopping eight candidates for the JCCC board, has forced the GOP to try to rally voters behind its three candidates: incumbents Greg Musil and Nancy Ingram, along with Jameia Haines.

The other eight candidates — Cassandra Peters, Mo Azeem, Lori Bell, Laura Smith-Everett, Chris Roesel, Farha Azaz, Val Baul and Colleen Cunningham — are listed in a flier that at least one Democratic volunteer was distributing, which advertised a Democrat running for Lenexa City Council. “Also, there are a number of Democrats running for JCCC Trustee,” it says.

Some have attributed the slew of candidates to the controversy in February when JCCC President Dr. Joseph M. Sopcich was overheard dismissing the financial struggles of the school’s students, while others point to the board’s decision to end the track program. Yet neither Leiker nor Pritchett raised those issues to explain the Democratic traffic jam on the ballot, instead ascribing it mostly to discontent with the other president, Donald Trump.

Pritchett says with Trump in the White House — combined with Democratic momentum from the 2018 wins in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District and gubernatorial races — it wasn’t hard to recruit candidates.

One result is a much more vigorous race, which will only heat up after the primary: The top six vote-getters in Tuesday’s election will vie for the three available trustee seats in November.

Since only three of the current 11 candidates are Republicans, the very best the GOP can do on Tuesday is claim half of the six slots on the November ballot.

If Johnson County Republicans have been outmaneuvered and outworked, it’s been fair and square.

Even if you don’t care about that, you may care about this: If enough free-tuition Democrats make it onto the college’s seven-member Board of Trustees — there are two Democrats there now — loading nearly 85% of the cost of Johnson County Community College onto taxpayers could get serious consideration.

Democratic JCCC candidates who appear amenable to some form of free or greatly reduced tuition include Roesel, Smith-Everett, Cunningham and Baul, who calls tuition “double-taxation.”

For her part, Pritchett says she’d also support free tuition. “We have the money. It’s a matter of priorities,” she argues.

The question for Johnson County voters on Tuesday and again in November: Is that what you want? Eliminating the current $94-a-credit-hour tuition would shift some $30 million onto taxpayers, a roughly 30% increase in the college’s share of the local property tax — after the county’s property taxes rose 244% from 1997 to 2018, according to the Kansas Policy Institute, a nonprofit focused on limited government.

There’s also the uncharted impact that free college might have on the institution. Wouldn’t a flood of new students attracted to free or near-free tuition drastically increase the college’s costs (which, again, would be borne by taxpayers)? In addition, wouldn’t it engulf the college in less-motivated students?

If this isn’t a holy war, it’s at least a “holy cow!” moment.