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Bitterroot College future depends on complicated state laws

Bitterroot College
Posted at 10:53 PM, May 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-19 00:59:51-04

HAMILTON — If voter approval of a proposal to establish an independent Bitterroot College is to be carried out, the idea will have to thread through a maze of complications in state law.

However, the work could actually iron out a process for establishing other community colleges around the state.

When Ravalli County voters went "two for one" on three ballot questions to establish an independent Bitterroot College, it was a step forward for the efforts to detach the school from the University of Montana, opening the door for new opportunities.

Yet the approval to establish the college, and elect trustees, is hamstrung by the decision turning down a levy to fund the school. It's a snag in Montana law which makes it next to impossible to establish a new community college.

"And this is a statewide problem, not just a Ravalli County problem, is that the current statutes that govern the creation of new community college districts have never really been tested," Rep. David Bedey of Hamilton said. "And I've been looking into them for several months and have found they are very confusing at the very best."

In fact, Bedey says there was no way to take those ballot questions into a single vote.

"It was unanimous that we couldn't bind the two questions," Bedey said. "That is, do you want a community college district and are you willing to pay for it with a levy, could not be presented as one single question on the ballot. The law is worse than vague. It is absent in terms of giving guidance on how you raise revenue for a newly funded community college."

That means the question of setting up the Bitterroot College district will go to the Legislature in 2021, but without money to support it. Bedey hopes to re-work the law, but it could be 2023 before the lawmakers could consider funding. However, there's a bright spot. Voters did elect trustees, and although they won't take office until the Legislature acts on the first question, they will be in place to drive the plans forward.

"And they will have a couple of years before the next Legislature is in session to navigate what we hope to have as new laws, and put together a local funding, if taxpayers are willing to do that," Bedey said.

In 2007, college supporters had asked the Legislature to form the college, but lawmakers at the time opted to start the school and place it under the operation of the University of Montana.