After failing to get legislative approval for establishment of a Bitterroot College District about a decade ago, the University of Montana stepped in and established the Bitterroot College University of Montana. But the urge to create an independent college district under local control did not subside and in the last biennium legislation, Senate Joint Resolution (SJR)15 was passed, overwhelmingly approving the first Community College district in the state of Montana in over 50 years— the Bitterroot Valley Community College District (BVCC).
The result is we have a functioning Bitterroot College UM, a program of the University of Montana, still offering basic entry level courses in which credits can be applied to a full degree at the UM and a newly established Bitterroot Valley Community College governed by a locally-elected board, and able to cater to the unique needs of Ravalli County citizens, students and businesses.
“There is an inaccurate belief that what currently exists in Hamilton—the Bitterroot College UM¬—is a community college.” said BVCC Board Chair Marci Smith. “It is not.” Smith said the ultimate goal of the Bitterroot Valley Community College is to be an educational and career-training source for all ages. While the BVCC will still offer the same courses and opportunities currently offered at BC—Associate degrees, MUS credits, dual credit and early college options for high school students— it will also have the autonomous authority to bring a new focus on career and technical education and industry-recognized credential programs tailored to the unique needs of the growing Bitterroot Valley and Western Montana.
Right now, however, it is a little like standing with one foot on the dock and another on the ship. The University of Montana and the Board of Regents have agreed to keep the Bitterroot College UM program running for a couple more years while the BVCC works on getting a financial footing under its venture. The BVCC is currently operating under a provisional budget of $400,000 provided by the legislature for assisting in the transition.
“That may sound like a lot,” said Smith, “but it’s peanuts compared to what we need for a functioning college.” Smith said the budget of $200,000 per year for two years would pay for some office help, a clerk and maybe an IT person. The bottom line, according to Smith, is that the college district is going to have to go back to the voters for approval of a levy.
“That’s the big hurdle we are working towards right now,” said Smith. “I think the biggest thing about becoming an independent community college is that people can continue on the paths that exist there already to move into a four-year program at a cheaper price or they can take a different path into career training working with local businesses.” She said opportunities to design courses are already being explored with local companies, such as electrical contractors looking for certified electricians, and the new bio-tech lab that is looking for skilled lab technicians. She said the new college will have the ability to provide the welders, dental hygienists, radiology technicians and other specialists that the Bitterroot is in need of.
This will be one of our main strengths, I think, when we are up and running,” said Smith.
BVCC board members met last week with the Provost and Vice-Provost from the University and they expressed nothing but support, according to Smith. She said they have nothing but the best interests of the new college in mind. She called it a win/win situation because they would continue to be a feeder to the university system by providing the same set of Associate degrees, dual credit and early college options for high school students.
The BVCC board, elected last May, meets monthly. They have only formally met twice since being formed but they have all been working hard, according to Smith, putting together a plan of operation and a budget that the public may be willing to support.
Right now, classes continue just like they did before and the Hamilton School District, which owns the building and has been renting it to the university, seems agreeable to transferring the lease to the BVCC. Smith is hopeful that the new college will be up and running by the fall of 2023.
The BVCC trustees encourage folks to stop by their booth at the Ravalli County Fair to learn more and get involved. Their booth will be shared with the current Bitterroot College UM. The booth is located under the grandstands in the north corner.