Among the government-funded programs set to lose funding under the GOP-backed state budget, Literacy Bitterroot could wind up without a third of its funding, according to executive director Dixie Stark.

Literacy Bitterroot is a nonprofit that offers basic reading and math tutoring for adults as well as GED preparation, all free and confidential. The group also provides scholarships for students who can't afford to pay for the GED.

Stark said despite funding going down slightly in years' past, student numbers have doubled. In 2010, Literacy Bitterroot served 290 students, with 51 earning their GEDs. That was a larger graduating class than either Victor or Darby High Schools.

"There is a lot of bang for the buck as far as the taxpayer dollar," Stark said.

Stark said her organization is already barebones as is. The group provides its services on a budget of $95,000 a year. It includes one full-time employee and eight part-time employees who aren't equivalent to a single full-time position.

Already, Stark has had to freeze pay as well as double employees' workloads.

"We are really challenged to provide the services we provide, and how we will do that with less money is beyond me," Stark said.

While penning the state budget in February, funding for Adult Basic Education was eliminated, effectively cutting $525,000 of spending a year. That funding is matched by federal dollars, which would mean Montana would lose a total of $1.1 million for adult ed.

However, in March the spending was added back to House Bill 2 in a second reading in the state Senate, but this time with the contingency that it will only be reinstated if House Bill 316 passes. That bill revises the allocation of various revenue and income to the state general fund.

Things get even trickier, however, as Gov. Brian Schweitzer has vowed to veto HB2, which has passed both the House and Senate.

"What happens next is very unclear," Stark said, adding that 21 programs across the state receive ABE funds. "My heart breaks for the students. If this program was not here, they would simply be stuck at a dead end in their lives."

Stark said of her $95,000-a-year budget, $62,000 comes from government funding. The rest is provided by a variety of contracts for service, private foundations, donors and contributors.

"If we could grow the part of that budget that isn't federal or state dollars, we could still provide services," Stark said. "But we're not sure what that would look like."

Literacy Bitterroot has existed for more than 20 years. Starting out as a program within the Bitterroot Public Library, Literacy Bitterroot grew into a separate entity and moved to the Human Resource Council. It has served about 2,500 students in its tenure, Stark said.

Stark has been with the group for 20 years and said Literacy Bitterroot serves a whole range of students. About 40 percent are school-age youth who have dropped out, she said.

"There are so many people who need us to find a new career," Stark added.

College and career prep are more important to the program than in the past, she added.

"It used to be a GED was an end point. Now when students come in, a GED is a stepping stone," Stark said. "It's a door that will get you into college, into the workplace. We try to make sure students do not see it as the end of their education, but as the beginning of their future."

Current Literacy Bitterroot board of directors president Suzanne Derrough received her GED in 2005 at the age of 50.

Derrough said prior to starting at Literacy Bitterroot, she was scared she wouldn't be able to do the course work. It had been a long time since she had been in school.

"With my age and growing up and having five children and three of those children not graduate, it was hard for me to think that I could do it," Derrough said. "It was very enlightening to me. ... The program is designed to help you feel like you can achieve anything."

While a student, Derrough said she received one-on-one attention from helpful instructors.

"They are so good at pinpointing what you need more time with," she said. "They actually take the time to work with you to figure out what you need."

Derrough said she believes Literacy Bitterroot is a vital program to the county.

"I think (losing funding) would be horrific," Derrough said. "There are children being left behind and this is the one program that will pick them up. ... If they fall through the cracks at school, somebody's going to have to pick them up and push them. We're here to pick you up and show you that you can do this."

This wouldn't be the first time Literacy Bitterroot has suffered through funding cuts. Stark said in the mid-1990s, the organization lost a funding source that forced the nonprofit to diversify its budget. But they still survived.

This time around, however, the future is uncertain.

"We will either serve fewer people or we won't be here at all," Stark said.

Reach reporter Whitney Bermes at 363-3300 or