The statewide tour of Montana higher education officials that landed in Hamilton Friday afternoon was one part inaugural tour, one part farewell tour and one part serious discussion of how to make higher education more accessible - and how to pay for it.
Alongside Royce Engstrom, introduced as the University of Montana's new president, sat Mary Moe, Montana's retiring deputy commissioner for two-year education.
A room of close to 50 applauded both Engstrom and Moe, and had some left over for the announcement that the Bitterroot College Program of the University of Montana continues to expand. The Hamilton-based two-year UM extension program has 250 class enrollments and 125 individual students for the fall semester.
"And we've got 70 signed up for the spring semester," Victoria Clark, interim director of the Bitterroot College Program, said. "Last year we didn't hit that number until Jan. 15."
The gathering at the Bitterroot River Inn was the last stop on a listening tour hosted by the state Commissioner of Higher Education to inform and gather feedback from the public on the COLLEGE!Now initiative.
Funded with a Lumina Foundation grant, College!Now is exploring the opportunities for access to Montana's higher education system through two-year programs.
The Bitterroot College Program was at the center of that discussion on Friday.
But amid the celebration the program's successes and a general meat-and-potatoes discussion of how Montana might improve its higher-education system, a question lurked.
It finally found a voice in John Robinson, a longtime proponent of a local Bitterroot Valley college and chairman of the steering committee for the Bitterroot College Program.
"We need to ask ourselves what are we going to do about the funding issue," Robinson said, more than an hour into the session.
The panel, which also included Clay Christian, vice chair of Montana's Board of Regents; Sheila Stearns, Commissioner of Higher Education; and state representative Bob Lake, R-Hamilton, who sits on the House education committee, may have been a little surprised the question took so long to come up.
"I thought we might get out of here before anyone asked about funding," Engstrom joked.
Because that question will ultimately be sorted out in Helena, it landed with the legislator.
Lake said an effort is under way to study how to revamp the higher-education funding system, particularly when it comes to allowing communities to raise taxes for community colleges, though he cautioned that it is very early in the process.
In the case of the Bitterroot College Program, the courses and administration are funded as an extension of UM.
The program has quickly outgrown the space it occupies at the Ravalli Entrepreneurship Center, and Lake said finding a different facility may come down to finding local funding.
"We are going to have to ask the question, ‘What do you feel the community is willing to commit to the facility,' " Lake said. "Is it 3 percent? Five percent? Eight? None?"
Robinson pointed out that the community voted in 2007 to tax itself 6 mills to fund a community college that eventually died for lack of support from Montana University System officials, the Board of Regents and the Legislature.
Lake and Stearns told the group there was a draft bill in the works that would fix the problematic law that guided the 2007-08 effort to launch a Bitterroot community college.
As the meeting wrapped up, Clark said the funding arrangement by which UM covers the college's budget - $250,000 this year, up from about $175,000 last year - did raise some long-term questions.
"The issue is really: When does it become a funding formula rather than a handshake deal?" Clark said.
She said local members of the BCP steering committee, while confident in the commitment of their partners at UM, hoped to have something a little more solid moving into the future.
"We feel like we have to have something in place before these people are gone," Clark added, echoing Moe's call to build a "program that outgrows the people" who got it up and running.
For his part, Engstrom said it is appropriate to launch a study of how Montana apportions and raises funding for higher education programs, but like Lake, he warned that the process was in its infancy.
"I do think the growth (in the Bitterroot College Program) is already telling us that something has to happen in terms of a funding mechanism," Engstrom said.
While funding will likely remain an open question - sure to be hotly debated come January and the 2011 Legislature - the need for locally offered college courses in Ravalli County was not disputed.
Ron Klaphake, an adjunct professor teaching Introduction to American Government at the Bitterroot College Program, said the bulk of his students were enrolled in Hamilton for one simple reason - they work and can't find time to attend college anywhere else.
John Filz, director of Ravalli Head Start, brought up the issue that his staff, to qualify as federally funded Head Start instructors and caseworkers, would need to have earned four-year degrees by 2014. Most have associate degrees.
"That means our employees will need to do a two-year, nontraditional degree (to complete a bachelor's) in three years," Filz said.
Engstrom noted that, when a group comes forward with a specific need, the university would like to be nimble enough in its management of the BCP to offer a "cohort program" that could address a specific educational goal.
In the end, the officials gathered for Friday's listening session had a clear message:
The model in place in the Bitterroot - a locally led program administered by the large, resource-rich and nearby university - was a solid one.
Stearns said despite the "bruised feelings" that initially lingered after the Bitterroot Community College defeat, the program now in place was "an astonishing success."
Dixie Stark, a BCP steering committee member and one-time community college proponent, likened the growth of the Bitterroot College Program to the valley's hardy and nutritious namesake plant, which appears sickly before pushing up its bright blossom.
"It can even go a year without water," she said, channeling her previous studies in botany. "And it may not bloom, but it's not going to die."
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.