HELENA – More than a dozen Dawson Community College leaders, students and alumni took turns behind the lectern last week, trying to convince members of the House Appropriations Committee not to close their 75-year-old campus.

A week earlier, Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock had suggested that budget cuts to higher education proposed by the Legislature would be deep enough that he might need to close a college – a statement he later walked back since the authority to do so lies with the Board of Regents for university-affiliated campuses and with separate local boards for community colleges. The regents and board leaders have said they have no plans to do so, but have warned that the proposed cuts will result in tuition increases and impact programs.

But Glendive-area leaders say the threat remains and the closure of Dawson Community College could still be forced by legislators’ budget decisions.

Unlike the seven campuses managed by the regents, the Legislature has the power to decide which community colleges to fund and at what level. Following a recommendation from the governor, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education had proposed reducing the state’s share of the cost to educate a resident student from the 50.8 percent it has been for a decade to 47.05 percent. The full committee reversed some of those cuts on Friday. Although local taxes and tuition also support community college programs and pay for any construction, leaders say the state’s appropriation for educational programs are a critical piece of their budgets.

As the 2018-19 state budget is finalized in the next two months, legislators also could decide not to fund a particular campus at all.

Rep. Donald Jones, the Billings Republican who chairs the education subcommittee, has said Dawson Community College spends too much per student after years of enrollment declines. Across all of Montana’s campuses, the state’s higher education spending amounts to an average of about $7,000 per student. Dawson spent $12,514 per student in 2016, in part because resident enrollment has plummeted from 380 in 2010 to 154 in 2016. It has climbed some this year.

Jones noted that Montana State University Northern also spends more than he would like per-student – about $10,000 in recent years – but the Legislature does not have authority over that campus. It is up to the Regents to manage their own lump sum appropriation from the state.

On Friday, Jones and the majority of the Appropriations committee amended the state’s core budget bill to cap how much per-student the state will fund community colleges at $9,518 per student. Any costs beyond that would have to be picked up by local taxpayers. He is carrying a companion bill to amend the funding formula in state law to support that appropriation level.

But removing state funding for Dawson altogether remains an option, Jones said.

He recalled conversations he and Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell, had with Dawson and Miles City community colleges in 2013 about their high per-student costs, telling the two campuses within 70 miles of each other that “if you’re not going to get your numbers up … you need to start putting a plan together to shut down.”

“We’ve been telling them they’ve got to do something serious here,” Jones said. “At some point, you have to say is it really viable? Is it a good use of state money?”

It is unclear how many legislators would support such a proposal, although some members have said they are more focused on finding a way to reduce Dawson’s operating costs or boost enrollment rather than closing it.

Republican Rep. Alan Doane wore a sticker on his left lapel with the college’s red-and-black logo as he testified before his colleagues Wednesday.

“I graduated from DCHS in 1983. In 1984, I took a horseshoeing class at Dawson Community College. In 2006, I graduated from DCC’s farm and ranch management program,” he said. “If that hadn’t been right down the road, I wouldn’t have done any of those opportunities. If I hadn’t of done that, I probably wouldn’t be up here representing Dawson and Wibaux counties today. I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer when I took that class. Try imagining doing this job we do up here without being computer literate…. I know you have a hard job to do, but take a good hard look at this one for me, if you would.”

The crowd that filled the House Appropriations hearing room on Wednesday wanted to make sure legislators know they would fight any proposal to defund Dawson Community College.

“If you were to have this meeting today in Glendive, there would be hundreds in attendance and we’d be in the auditorium at the college or at a high school. At a community meeting just this last Friday, there were over 130 attendees in support of DCC,” Glendive Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture Director Christine Whitlatch said, comparing the campus’ recent financial and enrollment struggles to the ranches and farms that surround the rural college. “You make it over the ebbs and flows over the cost of grain and cattle – it’s pretty low right now. You don’t make it unless you’re in it for the long haul. If you really look at the history of our community’s commitment to this campus, to the education of our children, other Montana children, you will really see that we will weather the storm and we are making really good strides to move forward.

“Don’t throw away an over-75-year investment to solve a temporary problem we have right now in Montana,” she said.

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.