HAMILTON - Voting to fund the new Bitterroot Valley Community College (BVCC) is entering the final stretch, with Ravalli County residents having just over a week to complete and return their ballots by May 3.
While the levy raises the operational funds for BVCC, the question of where that learning will take place over the long term is being left to the future.
This month's vote for the levy has some complications, asking voters to sort out the relationship between the current program, a satellite of the University of Montana, and setting up the new Bitterroot Valley Community College.
They already approved the community college two years ago but passed on the funding. The legislature approved the new school. Now, Ravalli County must decide the money — but only the money for operations. The levy anticipates remaining at the current Bitterroot College campus for now.
"So that's what this vote does," Bitterroot College Director Victoria Clark explains. "This levy will enable the college to actually exist and to operate, and then it can start addressing that issue and looking at options.
"It will take some time," Bitterroot Valley Community College Trustee Chair Marci Smith admits. "We're not going to fling our doors open in the fall of 2023 and have everything in place. Right now the plan is to stay in the building that we are in and continue renting from Hamilton High School. We haven't heard anything to the contrary at this point, so hopefully, that's a place we can call home for a while."
If the levy passes, Clark says current Bitterroot College students would be able to transition their learning over to Bitterroot Valley Community College without interruption.
"The student themselves will still have an accredited education. The new college will initially be under the umbrella of another accredited entity. Could be the UM. Could be another college in the state. But the student will have their college courses be accredited."
The "step-at-a-time" approach is actually one that community colleges frequently use as they're starting up, funding initial programs first, and then solving the location question second. But since Bitterroot Valley Community College is the first effort to start a Montana community college in more than 50-years, it's not a familiar process.
But backers of the idea are confident of the path.
"There are options for funding," Clark says. 'There are federal grants for capital projects. There's the new Bitterroot Valley Community College Foundation, which I'm sure would be an instrumental partner in a capital campaign for a permanent campus. So there's options, and there's a road forward.
Smith feels momentum to address a permanent BVCC campus would be positive.
"And obviously, if there comes a point in time somewhere down the road that we're outgrowing it, that's a problem that's kind of good to have and we will address that situation at that point in time."