by Nathan Boddy
It was a full house of area residents that showed up to listen to five of the six candidates for trustee of the Bitterroot Valley Community College (BVCC) on Wednesday, April 13th. The BVCC currently stands at a pivotal crossroads as it awaits the outcome of May’s ballot issue on funding through a levy of up to 9.75 mills. While funding (or lack thereof) will have a critical impact on the future of the entity, Wednesday’s forum was not intended as a showcase for the ballot issue. Instead, the participants were present to make their cases as to why they should be chosen as trustees for the first community college to be created in Montana in 53 years. Nonetheless, the levy did come up several times during the evening’s event, which was sponsored by the BVCC Foundation, and moderated by Steve Fullerton.
Three candidates are running for two available three-year terms. They are: incumbent and BVCC Chair, Marci Smith, incumbent trustee, Carrie Guarino, and Debbie Pope. Three other candidates are vying for one available one-year term: incumbent trustee, Chad DeLong, Paul Ashcraft, and area homeschool student, Bryce Bowman. Bowman was unable to attend the forum.
Of the five candidates present, all but Debbie Pope have expressed their support of the proposed levy. Pope, who is running for a three-year term, has said that she has concerns about BVCC transparency and does not support the levy. She said that she would never have guessed she’d be running for a trustee position even six weeks ago, but after seeing some “fancy signs around town,” she wanted to see for herself. Addressing the proposed levy, Pope stated that, “some can afford more taxes but many of us are struggling. With the additional tax is a diminished quality of life.”
Many of the candidates spoke encouragingly about the relative value of community colleges and the hardworking individuals associated with BVCC. Another theme was the importance of solid connections between community colleges and local business and enterprises. Chad DeLong said, “If you have a workforce or an ability to train or provide a workforce, then you have a big leg up. That’s how you recruit companies and that’s how you retain companies.” His sentiment was echoed by Paul Ashcraft whose own experience as a maintenance manager in an industrial plant would have been far more difficult, “without those apprenticeship programs with a local community college.”
Marci Smith, who has admitted to already have given thousands of hours of time to the future of the BVCC, also pointed out that an educational option for local youth and adults represents a tremendous financial savings. As a parent of two young adults who are currently enrolled at MSU, Smith said that she and her husband, “understand the cost of higher education,” and that she would love to see an opportunity for people to receive education at a price-point essentially half of what a four-year university costs. Smith added that her experience as a board member of the Victor School District has allowed her to further see the importance of a local community college option. “I call myself a K-14 trustee,” she says.
Carrie Guarino, who was appointed to the BVCC board in December, says that she herself was the product of a community college education before going on to Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees. She also spent time teaching in a community college as an adjunct professor, and said that, “When I was an adjunct professor I could see how community college made a difference in people’s lives.”
Another common theme amongst the candidates was the value of a community college with local control and the ability to tailor its programs and courses to the needs of the valley. Said Chad DeLong, “That’s the beauty of a community college. You can craft things for small business and small trades.” He went on to state the importance of continuing education as well, saying that a community college allows people to continue to learn throughout their professional lives. Carrie Guarino suggested that BVCC could “talk to high school seniors or even juniors to see what they need,” in order to promote and tailor the college.
Paul Ashcraft was in agreement, and stated that, “You haven’t heard any of the candidates say that we have to replicate the programs they have at the University of Montana.” He went on to encourage BVCC’s partnership with all the valley high schools.
Moderator Steve Fullerton asked the candidates about the future of the facilities for BVCC. The current location of the Bitterroot College at 103 S. 9th Street is owned by the Hamilton School District and under lease to the college. Most candidates seemed to agree that many avenues for addressing future growth and physical location were available for consideration long before a capital investment was even upon the table. Debbie Pope seemed to disagree, however, and stated plainly that “a new levy is coming up in November,” and expressed concern about future spending on facilities.
Marci Smith responded to Pope’s assertion, saying, “I am not aware of any levy in November unless you’re referencing one for Hamilton schools… It’s not for us.” She added, “I’ve heard some numbers bandied around about a $25 million building that we’re planning and I have to say that that is patently not in the plans. I’m not sure where that came from.”
Smith then explained what a future condition might look like when and if capital improvements might be needed. “When it comes to a point in time that we need to consider a newer building, it means we’ve grown so much that it’s a problem we might want to have. If we end up with that type of student population, it means our tuition dollars have increased, and consequently we will also have more money coming in from the state match. It’s not the same type of budget that we’d be looking at as of tomorrow.” Smith also touted the efforts of the BVCC Foundation, which she says is comprised of “all sides of the political spectrum and from all sides of the valley.” She pointed out that $350,000 has already been pledged to the BVCC if the levy passes, and that the Foundation would be a great place to start if a capital campaign were ever needed. “People love having buildings named after them,” she said.
Smith ended her response by saying, essentially, what most of the other candidates seemed to be expressing about the need for future facilities for BVCC. “It’s a problem that I think we are going to want to have, but I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future.”
At the close of the forum, Steve Fullerton pointed out that members of the BVCC Foundation were on hand to let people know exactly how much the proposed 9.75 mills would raise their property taxes. He mentioned that he had checked his own, and when someone inquired loudly as to the results, he added with a smile, “about a tank of gas.”