A petition is circulating to place the establishment of a local independent community college in the Bitterroot on the May 2020 ballot. Candy Lubansky, President of the Bitterroot College Advisory Council, said, “We are asking the community whether they would like us to pursue legislative establishment as a fully qualified, independent community college.”
Lubansky said that one hurdle to getting the required signatures is that many people are under the mistaken impression that the Bitterroot College UM is a community college because that’s what the voters approved back in 2008. What people need to realize, she said, is that it is not. It is an appendage of the University of Montana, like the Missoula College.
In 2008, the voters did approve the establishment of a community college in the Bitterroot but actual authorization must come from the Legislature, and the legislature balked. Lubansky said that she believes the Legislature felt that the ballot language wasn’t clear enough to the voters about the cost involved. Instead of creating a community college, she said, they turned to the University of Montana and told them to establish an affiliate program in the Bitterroot.
“That’s what they did,” said Lubansky, “but an affiliate is not an independent community college.” She said there are genuine independent community colleges in the state, like Flathead College, but the Bitterroot College UM, like Missoula College, is more like an extension of the university. The university board holds all the authority. She called the arrangement with the university “a handshake agreement” that has been chronically underfunded and could be easily dissolved in the same way it was formed.
“That’s why, this time, we are making it very clear about the cost,” said Lubansky. Besides calling for an election to decide if the voters want a community college, on the same ballot there would be a proposition for a $650,000 mill levy to support the community college district’s operating budget with the condition that this mill levy, if approved, be effective only upon the legislature’s approval of the proposed community college district. The taxable valuation of the proposed district is $73.4 million. One mill in the new district is worth $73,401. To raise $650,000, 8.86 mills would be required. 8.86 mills would cost taxpayers $11.95 per year for a residential property worth $100,000.
The boundary of the community college district is the extent of its taxing authority. All those residing within the community college district can attend the college as in-district students. The proposed Bitterroot Valley Community College district includes all of the school districts in Ravalli County except Florence-Carlton. Because of Florence-Carlton’s location (partly in Ravalli County and partly in Missoula County), there are statutory difficulties regarding the inclusion of Florence-Carlton during the initial formation of a community college district. However, Florence-Carlton residents may elect to annex the school district to the Bitterroot Valley Community College district at a future date.
A locally elected, seven-member board would manage and control the college. The Montana Board of Regents would retain supervisory and coordinating powers over the college.
Lubansky said that under the current arrangement the college is not able to confer an Associate Degree. As a result, she said, students can take a Chemistry 101 class here, but if they are interested in a series of classes for a career interest, the next class will be at the U of M, or possibly the Missoula College.
She said Bitterroot College UM is not recognized by the Montana University System, its enrollment data is reported as part of Missoula College UM and its budget data is reported as part of the University of Montana. She said this hampers the college’s ability to participate in budget decisions.
She said that Bitterroot College UM is unable to attend college recruiting events or directly receive Federal career & technical education money (Perkins) or disadvantage student funds (TRIO) as it has no legitimate identity as a college campus.
“We don’t have the flexibility or the authority to make course offering decisions, either,” said Lubansky.
Julie Foster, Executive Director of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, couldn’t agree more.
“Economic development wise,” she said, “we are Montana’s seventh largest county in population but we are not getting the funding we need to provide a good two-year training program.”
Foster said that she looked at 20 years of data on taxable values in the Bitterroot and found only two spikes in the picture, one when GSK bought Corixa in 2002 and one when GSK expanded in 2016. She said there were other companies in the valley that, like GSK, need a skilled or trained workforce. “But we are not getting the funding we need to provide that sort of two-year training program.”
Foster said that the average two-year college in the state is funded at about $74 per student but at the Bitterroot College it comes to only $7.50 per student.
“Ravalli County is being kept at the zero level for job services and occupational training,” she said.
Lubansky said that by establishing a bonified Bitterroot Valley Community College, the college would enjoy long term stability, gain critical academic authority, and local control over its offerings. She said that these are “huge advantages in being responsive to your community.”
Lubansky said having a real college does come at a cost. “I think citizens are and should be concerned about taxes. We should all be discerning when it comes to taxes. But education is one of those really important considerations that I hope people see the value of.”
“The aim,” said Foster of the petition campaign, “is to gather more than the required 5,360 signatures by the end of January. That way if there is any question about things when it is submitted, there will still be time to make corrections.”
Information about the petition can be found online at http://bvcommunitycollege.org/faqs.html.