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Montana grapples with tribal student funding

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HELENA, Mont. - Tribal colleges make financial sacrifices to keep their
doors open to non-Indian students, and the state should pay its fair share
for educating them, members of the Montana House Education Committee were
told at a recent hearing.

The panel was considering House Bill 16, sponsored by Rep. Rick Ripley,
R-Wolf Creek. The measure proposes to raise the state's per-student
distribution limit from $1,500 to $3,024 for so-called non-beneficiary
students who attend tribally controlled community colleges and are bona
fide state residents.

According to Salish Kootenai College (SKC) President Joe McDonald, who
testified at the Jan. 10 hearing, tribal colleges this year receive $4,300
from the federal government for each enrolled student who is a member of a
federally recognized tribe.

Likewise, the state provides up to $3,024 for each resident student
attending state-run community colleges in Montana, but only a maximum of
$1,500 per tribal college student for non-Indians and Indians or their
descendants who don't belong to recognized tribes. And that's not fair,
bill proponents said.

At the Flathead Reservation's SKC, McDonald said, it costs the school about
$1 million a year to carry these non-beneficiary students. And, he and
other proponents added, the state should share the burden because many of
these students eventually transfer to state universities, which benefit
generously from the training received at the tribal schools.

State figures show there were 375 students in Montana's seven tribal
colleges who would have qualified for the state benefits last year. If each
of them was fully funded by the Legislature at the newly-proposed rate, it
would cost the state about $1.1 million annually.

Officials say Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's budget so far only
includes $200,000 a year for the colleges, up from $48,250 annually
proposed by former Republican Gov. Judy Martz, who didn't seek re-election
to a second term in 2004. Funding for the program has fluctuated greatly
over the years, depending on how much money state lawmakers have seen fit
to allocate. Since the money is not a statutory appropriation, tribal
colleges must request new funding every two years.

"We've all had open doors," McDonald said. "We're trying to help everyone
who comes to us. But there's a cost to this."

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Sen. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, testified in favor of the bill. He noted
that the original bill establishing state funding for non-beneficiary
students was carried by former Rep. John Mercer, another Polson Republican
who now serves as chairman of the Montana Board of Regents.

"I think it's very important to enhance this educational opportunity in
Montana," Brueggeman told the committee.

"[Tribal colleges] are a vital part of our education system," added Rep.
Carol Juneau, a Browning Democrat who is one of eight tribal lawmakers
serving in the 2005 Legislature. The schools also act as an important
component of reservation and statewide economic development.

"It's such an important bill," said Rep. Norma Bixby, a Lame Deer Democrat
who sponsored similar legislation in the 2001 and 2003 sessions. "It really
needs to be funded."

The measure also was supported by Montana Commissioner of Higher Education
Sheila Sterns, Rep. Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar, Rep. Joey Jayne, D-Arlee,
and numerous other tribal college administrators and students.

Campbell, a longtime tribal college administrator, presented 52 letters of
support from students at Fort Peck Community College, as well as a letter
from FPCC President James Shanley urging passage.

SKC employee Dana Grant added that tribal colleges serve an important
function in bringing Indians and non-Indians together in their communities.
Others mentioned the fact that opportunities for higher education are few
and far between in a state as large and rural as Montana.

"There aren't a lot of options," explained Laurel Michel, a non-beneficiary
student at Blackfeet Community College in Browning.

Ripley's bill was requested unanimously by the State-Tribal Relations
Interim Committee. The House Education Committee amended the bill slightly
before approving it on a 16 - 0 vote. On the House floor, the measure
received strong endorsement, as well, with lawmakers on Jan. 18 voting 94 -
5 to send it to the House Appropriations Committee, where the bill's
proposed financing will undergo further review.