HAMILTON — The backers of a move to make Bitterroot College an independent school say they're making progress in a petition drive to get the proposal on the ballot next year.
However, Ravalli County commissioners suggest the petitioners might want to clarify their pitch, if they're going to convince voters on financing the change.
It's been over a decade since the Montana Legislature turned down a proposal to establish an independent college program in the Bitterroot. Instead, lawmakers established Bitterroot College as an extension under the University of Montana and Missoula College.
However, some college supporters, and businesses looking for the school to train workers, complain the Hamilton campus finds itself in competition for students and funding.
Earlier this fall, the Bitterroot College Advisory Council and the Ravalli County Workforce Alliance began circulating petitions with hopes of giving the college its own, independent program under the Montana University System.
Ravalli County commissioners were told Thursday that the petition drive has topped 4,000 signatures, roughly 1,000 short from placing the question on the ballot next May.
"Ideally we become independent and really have control over our curriculum. Actually be able to claim our students as Bitterroot College students, as opposed to Missoula College students. Have local control," said Steve Grover with the Ravalli County Work Alliance. "So, if this goes forward there would be a local board that will be established, that will actually control that school."
The plan would be to established a mandatory mill levy, of roughly $12 per $100,000 of value to convince the Legislature to allow Bitterroot College to become its own program. That's a tall order. But the move could also improve the school's standing in the University System with enough support.
"If we're not successful with that, I think the other thing that this is going to achieve is at least getting the recognition in terms of how Bitterroot College is currently being treated," Grover said.
"And I think we're really going to have a really strong leg to stand on, in terms of going back to U of M and saying 'look, this does not need to be a subsidiary of Missoula College. This is Bitterroot College and we need to approach it that way and fund it that way'," he added.
Ravalli County "Commissioner Jeff Burrows said he liked the proposal, but .felt the petition backers could do a little bit more to clarify what's being asked of the voters.
"I'm not comfortable with what's being presented right now. I like the concept of it. I think we need it. But I think people need to be told here's now much it's going to cost you. It may be more at some point if the college needs go up," Burrows said.
Supporters of an independent Bitterroot College are continuing to meet with UM officials to see if the school's relationship with Missoula College can be improved. They'll have until mid-January to gather the required signatures.