Just two weeks ago the Montana Board of Regents passed along a proposal to create a Bitterroot Valley College District to the Montana State Legislature, basically saying they could not, themselves, afford it, but they thought it was a good idea. They asked the legislature – the sole authority in establishing such a district – when considering it, to “recognize the significant educational merits of the proposal while also recognizing that important information about the sources of funding necessary to launch and sustain an additional community college in Montana is currently unavailable to the Regents and can only be provided by future commitments made by the voters of Ravalli County, other potential funders, and the Legislature itself.”
Last spring on May 5, voters from Corvallis, Darby, Hamilton, Lone Rock, Stevensville, and Victor school districts approved, by a 59% majority, a proposal to organize the Bitterroot Valley Community College District. In the same election, the voters also elected the first seven-member board of trustees to manage and administer the newly proposed district. They are Janet Woodburn, Ran Pigman, Don Gardner, Gary Carlson, Sue Smith, Linda Doughty, and Marci Smith.
The voters refused, however, to shoulder the cost and, on the same ballot, rejected the local levy proposed to fund district.
“That’s when the Board of Regents told us they would need to see some statement of need for the district and a plan of operation,” said trustee-elect Dan Gardner. He said they immediately began working with the Montana University system and the Commissioner of Higher Education and with the Board of Regents to develop a proposal. He said the next step is to follow up with the legislature and get them to approve the district’s creation. Gardner said that they were not requesting funding at this point, but they do have a good plan for it.
In its rationale for creating the district issued last September, the trustee-elects emphasized the Board of Regents’ historical acknowledgment of the needs for locally accessible post-secondary opportunities in the county when it established UM’s Hamilton High Education Center in 2007 and again when it established UM’s Bitterroot College Program in 2009 and again in 2011 when it included that program in its comprehensive two-year education mission/vision directive, which was rebranded in 2012 as Bitterroot College UM. “The demand for courses today,” they state, “exceeds the capacity of the Bitterroot College UM.”
The plan includes an operational budget based on projected enrollment ranging from 308 in 2024 to 340 in 2026; revenues are projected to run from $2,281,580 in 2024 to $2,435,569 in 2026; expenditures are projected to run from $2,269,100 in 2024 to $2,383,973 in 2026. [see accompanying charts. See the entire plan at www.bvcommunitycollege.org.]
The key purposes of the college district include providing a comprehensive two-year education program with workforce development including Certificates, Applied Associate Degrees, and Industry-Recognized Credentials; transfer education through Associate Degrees and general education coursework; Developmental and Adult Basic Education; Lifelong Learning and Community Development.
Gardner said that the new college district would have three critical organizational features which will optimize its potential as a two-year education campus.
These features include programming authority which enables the college to be timely, flexible, and self-directed in meeting the educational and workforce training demands in the county, said Gardner. It means independence and permanence for the college and allows the college to be established as a distinct local and regional entity which is essential for recruitment clarity, recruitment opportunity, resource opportunity, collaboration leverage, and evidence-based decision making. He said it gives the college funding equity, providing more predictability, and control. He said it also allows the college to plan, develop, and implement programming and services at levels commensurate with Montana’s other two-year education providers.
BVCC trustee-elect Janet Woodburn said, “With a community college the governance and decisions regarding which courses will be taught will be decided upon by a board of trustees that are elected by Ravalli County voters. We can train and educate locally in response to the jobs that can be created locally. Think about the possibilities. It’s really very exciting. We are really very excited about the support this initiative has received.”
“All we are asking for is creation of the district,” said Gardner. He said the formation of the district was approved by the voters in May and has met all the statutory requirements. “Now all we need is legislative approval and we can all officially take our seats.” He said having an official board in place was crucial for the creation of the district to go forward at this point. He said, if approved, under the current plan the college would open in the Fall of 2023.
“That would give us two years to get the details of the plan in place,” he said.
“If they do that, then we can do all sorts of things,” said Gardner.
Julie Foster, Director of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, and a member of the Ravalli County Workforce Alliance, said they have always supported the idea of forming a local college district. She said they have been working with the college for years helping to move people forward in their careers and have helped thousands. She said the training is being adapted to meet local needs.
Foster said that trying to cooperate with the university system over the years has been very frustrating and that they really need a local two-year college locally to accelerate their aims and goals. Over the long term, she said, the cost of creating and operating the district will come back multiple times through the increased wages. She said the transfer of degree credits means that many more local people will have the chance to start on a degree without having to leave home or commute to Missoula. She said that Ravalli County has traditionally been left out on funding for workforce training and higher education from the state and she hopes that this can change.
The next legislative session begins on January 5, 2021.
“We need and hope for community support to make this happen,” said Gardner. “I would urge citizens who would like to see this happen to let their legislators know how they feel. It would really be helpful for us to see this approved in the legislature.”