A group of motivated individuals have come together to form the Bitterroot Valley Community College Foundation, adding a second pillar to one of valley’s the newest institutions. Ravalli County voters approved the creation of the new community college district in 2021 and a board of trustees was elected. But the voters declined to approve an associated levy request to fund the new district. As a result the University of Montana agreed to continue funding the college programming in the Bitterroot for a couple of years to give the new district board time to transition, get its feet on the ground and establish its own funding base.
But the handwriting was on the wall from the beginning. The transitional funding was not enough to meet the needs for the new the district; it would just barely keep the doors open for the current very limited course options and not even that for very long. BVCC Board Chair Marci Smith said that it was clear that the voters recognized the need and the value of a locally controlled community college for the valley, but they didn’t think they could afford it. So the new board took on the task of designing an improved but affordable program that would have room and momentum to grow.
“There is an inaccurate belief that what currently exists in Hamilton—the Bitterroot College UM—is a community college,” said 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 Bitterroot College – 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. The bottom line, according to Smith, is that the college district is going to have to get voter approval of a levy if we want our own college in this community.
“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 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.
“We really need to get out from under the University of Montana’s decision-making process and design our own course structures based on our own decisions concerning what programs we really need,” said Smith. BVCC Foundation Chair Terry Nelson whole heartedly agrees. He said it would also make a college education more affordable for the student by reducing fees.
A levy to support the BVCC has been prepared for the May 3, 2022 ballot. Board member elections will also be on the ballot. The levy request is for 9.75 mills which is expected to raise $912,205 annually, but also leverages an approximate 200% match in state appropriations.
Smith said that the cost to taxpayers is only part of the picture. She said the real picture includes the returns on the investment which are estimated to be $6.80 for every $1 invested. And for every dollar each student pays, the return in terms of higher future income is $4.80.
“We are reaching a pinch point in this upcoming vote for a levy,” said Nelson.“If the voters will support this, we will have a college. If they don’t, we won’t.”
Nelson said he didn’t choose to be Chair of the new foundation, he had his arm twisted.
“But the reason I’m on the board is because I truly believe in the valley and wanting to maintain the ability for our kids to stay here. One of the big reasons I was excited about a foundation is that I don’t believe that the cost of schooling should be born on the backs of all the taxpayers and we have a tremendous amount of wealthy people in this valley. We also have a tremendous amount of people that can’t keep upping their taxes. The Foundation allows us to go out and tap into that wealth and help the college continue and to grow without having to tax more. That’s why I really like the idea of the foundation. All of our local legislators voted in favor of the college. We have public backing in that regard. Local Representative David Bedey was a co-sponsor of the bill. I think that it will be Republicans who will help decide whether this passes or not.”
Smith was quick to add how non-political the effort really is. “In a time that so much of politics has turned nasty and confrontational,” she said, “I learned at the Ravalli County Fair how non-political the issue really is. I was getting expressions of support from every kind of person. It’s a unifying cause.The foundation is such a joy to be working with because everybody is so enthusiastic. It’s such a great diversity of people, we have young, old, liberal, conservative, ag people, teachers. It warms my heart. It’s a phenomenal thing in this valley to see people from every spectrum getting involved.”
If the levy is approved, doors will open in Fall of 2023.