The Bitterroot Valley Community College District Board of Trustees is desperate to have a face to face working dialogue with University of Montana officials to discuss the future of the college but is having difficulty doing so. Although Ravalli County voters approved establishment of the District in March 2021 and the Legislature then created it (Senate Joint Resolution 15) in May, on the same ballot the voters refused to fund it. The District recently returned to the voters with a plan and a preliminary budget seeking a levy to support the operation but that levy request was soundly defeated in a May 3, 2022 election by a vote of 7,427 (58.62%) to 5,243 (41.38%). The proposed levy did not take the majority in any voting precinct in the county. Hamilton precinct (which coincides with the Hamilton School District) was the closest race, where the levy lost by 18 votes. Board Chair Marci Smith took the majority of votes in every precinct for her trustee position with 5,454 (36.97%) of the total votes. Other trustee positions that were open went to Carrie Guarino, 4,429 (30.02%) and Paul Ashcraft, 3,771 (42.04%). Other members of the BVCC Board of Trustees include Ran Pigman, Don Gardner, Sue Smith, and Janet Woodburn.
When the first attempt to establish a community college district was defeated over a decade ago, the University of Montana established the Bitterroot College UM. It is a program of the university that offers basic entry level courses in which credits can be applied to a full degree at the UM. Following the approval of the Bitterroot Valley Community College, University of Montana officials agreed to continue operating the program while it transitioned into an actual two-year community college. Following the failure of the levy request on May 3, however, the district has been thrown into a quandary about how to proceed. The district still has some left over funds and a new BVCC Foundation has been established that has already raised around $350,000 for the effort. But that is nowhere near enough to guarantee the proposed district budget in the long run.
Last week, UM Director of Strategic Communications Dave Kuntz told them the future of the Bitterroot College would be decided by the University of Montana, the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, and the Board of Regents. He said the Bitterroot College and the UM will determine what programs and classes will continue. He assured valley residents that the Bitterroot College would continue to operate as before. Instructors at the college were informed that signups were under way and classes would be taught at least through June 30, the end of this fiscal year.
Clay Christian, Commissioner of Higher Education and Seth Bodnar, President of the University of Montana, issued a letter last Friday stating:
“Serving the education and workforce development needs of the Bitterroot Valley is a commitment that sits at the heart of the University of Montana and the Montana University System’s missions. The recent levy vote regarding Bitterroot Valley Community College does not change this commitment.
“We write today to reaffirm that the University of Montana will continue to support the already existing Bitterroot College Programs and the students, staff, and faculty who benefit from and shape these programs.
“Planned academic courses for the coming year and student support resources at Bitterroot College will continue.
“To ensure the health of the Bitterroot campus and continued responsiveness to Bitterroot Valley residents, we will immediately create a more robust connection between the Bitterroot campus and the workforce training, transfer education, and community engagement opportunities throughout the Montana University System.
“Dr. Tom Gallagher, who leads workforce development for UM and serves as the Dean of Missoula College, will provide leadership for this effort.
“Over the course of the coming year, we will engage in a fresh assessment of the educational and workforce training needs in the Bitterroot Valley, looking to enhance existing and identify new partnerships with industry and the community, and exploring new ways to promote access to education. We look forward to continued collaboration with a wide array of partners in the Bitterroot Valley. Thank you for your engagement with us as we navigate this time of transition.”
Those reassurances did not reassure the current faculty and staff at the college, however. They showed up at the last BVCC board meeting to express their frustration. Jennifer Johnson, adjunct Chemistry Professor, spoke for the staff, saying it was unclear what the UM meant by its expression of support. She wondered if it meant a continuing transition from the Bitterroot College UM to a local community college. Or was it just going to be a continuation of the university program?
“Is there a plan to keep faculty and staff during the transition?” she asked. She wondered how the BVCC Board was going to persuade UM to commit to financially supporting the transition to a community college.
“Is the board planning to hire teachers in the short term to promote stability and attract applicants?” asked Johnson. She said that there was no stability at this time. She wondered how the board was going to address what she called an “untenable environment.” She said the condition of the building needs to be addressed even for the Bitterroot College UM to keep operating successfully. The building is currently owned by the Hamilton School District and is being rented by the UM. Serious levels of lead have recently been found in the water at the building.
“Why should faculty and staff continue to work when the very existence of our building is in limbo?” she asked. She said it would be very difficult for faculty and staff to continue without any documented commitment in terms of funding from the UM.
“We need the BVCC Board of Trustees to show us, the core team, why we should stick around and keep this thing afloat during a very uncertain time and only potential transition in view,” said Johnson. She said that faculty were being made offers for other employment that would be hard to resist without some guarantee from the UM about future funding. She said the transition was within reach with an established core team already set to work and implement a transition plan with a wealth of institutional knowledge and cultural knowledge and appreciable business and student relationships.
Academic and Student Services Director Lea Guthrie, who has served as Community Project Coordinator and now serves as Workforce Training Director, said that in the weeks since the levy failed she has received calls from Bitterroot Health, Community Hospital in Missoula and many of the high schools in the valley and that workforce training inquiries were pouring in.
“I stand with the staff and the faculty,” said Guthrie. “We are all making life-changing decisions in the next few weeks.”
According to a comment reported in a recent Ravalli Republic article, Bitterroot College UM Director Victoria Clark predicted that the program of the University of Montana would be closed by June 30. She told the BVCC Board that the comment was made off the record and was based on faculty and staff response to the levy failure that it was going to be very difficult to continue and that the existence of the university program as it stands was in jeopardy. With no guarantee about the employment from semester to semester, she said, it makes other teaching offers that much more attractive.
“I’m going to take the first shot across the bow on this and speak for myself, I guess,” said Board Chair Marci Smith at last week’s meeting. “We are not ready to give up and we are definitely in discussions, or in preparation for discussions, with the University of Montana.” She said they had a meeting set up with the Provost recently but it was cancelled and he is only on the job for another week.
Smith stated that the BVCC did have a lot of options to consider from running another levy in December, as the law allows, with a revised budget; or put the District on the shelf for a few years and try later; or just dissolve the District.
“For the University of Montana to say that they are going to support the Bitterroot College is a bit disingenuous,” said Smith. “There is nothing in writing that the funding will be there, no documentation of how much and that the funding comes semester by semester, there is no guarantee for the faculty or the staff in their employment status.
“If the University wants to commit to something they need to provide a document and they also need to provide an increase over previous funding, and do it for the long term. Staff needs to have some longer-term job security,” she said.
Board member Janice Woodburn made a pitch for the BVCC to move forward on its own.
“We still have a little bit of money,” said Woodburn. “Can we block out a workforce development plan, train electricians, plumbers, laboratory workers and go forward on some of this and hire an interim president to comb this out for us? I would just like to not sit around and wait for the University of Montana to get interested in us. I would love to see that, but we can move forward ourselves with this too.”
Board member Ran Pigman said he was on board with what Woodburn said, “but the piece that is important is that even if we move forward on the workforce, there still needs to be that meeting with UM. Before we do anything we need to meet with the University because in reality it won’t work for us if they decide they are going to have a presence here and now we have a UM thing and a BVCC thing. I don’t think they could co-exist and survive.” He said the UM needs to come to the understanding that there has to be a transition and in a short window and then they need to get out of it.
“They are in that window and they are helping to transition. I think it’s important before we try to go completely on our own that we come to kind of an understanding with them that there is not going to be two things going on. We are talking about re-branding by the end of this next school year. I hate to see us lose the staff and faculty,” he said.
A woman from the College Advisory Council, which has been advising UM on the university’s college issues for years, said that they should try to work with the advisory council and bring their voice into the situation as well. “You could try to keep that workforce energy going under the Bitterroot College UM,” she said.
Smith said there would always be a need for interaction and connection with the university’s College Advisory Council. “We are a theater school to your program,” she said. “I would see the Council’s position as very, very important as a liaison with the four-year school.”
Another member of the Advisory Council said that she asked Assistant Provost Nathan Lindsay directly if the UM was going to support the BVCC and that he said they couldn’t commit to anything at this time, but there was a commitment to education in the Bitterroot Valley.
Faculty member Jennifer Johnson asked, “What does that mean and can we have it in writing? I don’t believe we are going to get that answer. So, what do we do? We are committed to the success of the students and faculty understands the relationship with staff. Staff has to do its job or we can’t do our jobs. Our contracts are dependent on them and the strength of that team. We want to be sure that you understand that too.”
Board member Don Gardner said, “We will never pass a levy if UM says ‘we’ve got you covered’. They keep saying don’t worry, but give us nothing to be certain about.”
Clark said they were expecting the same budget, around $400,000, “but the problem is, that’s not enough.”
“We don’t even know legally what our status or options are,” said Smith. “Do we try a December levy? Can we shelve the district for a couple of years and then fire it up again? Or do we dissolve it? Everything is speculation.”
“We need answers now,” said Gardner. “This is urgent. We may not be their top priority, but we are trying. We are trying to get UM to work with us and move forward with a rebranding. That’s ultimately what we would like. But in the meantime, they need to make a statement on the issue.”
“I don’t hear anyone saying they are done and out of here,” said Smith.
Pigman said that UM’s best pathway would be to help in the transition. He said they need to come to the table soon to maintain what they’ve got. “If they want to maintain the status quo, they need to know what their staff’s position is.”
Cary Shimek, Associate Director of UM News Service, told the Bitterroot Star on Monday that the university was aware of the concerns about the Bitterroot College UM’s future and they are very supportive of the local efforts to establish a community college district. He said the UM has no authority over the district and is not directly involved in that effort. He said it was up to the BVCC Board and the residents of Ravalli County to make those decisions. But they are very commited to keeping the Bitterroot College up and running in the meantime. He said a meeting had been arranged for Tuesday, May 17 at the college which would include representatives from the UM and the Missoula College to work out the details of how the Bitterroot College could continue and hopefully address the concerns of faculty and staff.
Missoula College Dean Tom Gallagher said, “As an enthusiastic partner, I look forward to being in the valley this week to meet with faculty and staff face-to-face to support our shared goal of providing workforce and transfer education to Ravalli County residents.”