McGrath Opinion Clarifies Community College District Timelines
HELENA – In an opinion released Thursday, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath held that the Legislature has the final authority to approve the creation of a community college district. McGrath also held that approval occurs after approval by local voters but before the Board of Regents issues an organizational order.
Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns requested the opinion. The questions arose from a proposal to create a new community college in Ravalli County.
Under state law, the creation of a new community college district begins with the submission of a petition to the Board of Regents seeking to create the district. Next, the Board of Regents orders an election to seek voters’ approval of the district and to elect the district’s trustees if it is approved.
The law is less than clear on what happens next, and whether legislative approval happens before or after the election.
McGrath noted that the statute is a blend of three different bills, including one titled to require “final” approval by the legislature.
“Given the detailed procedural requirements set forth elsewhere in the statute,” he held, “the inclusion of the word ‘final’ can fairly be read as an indication that the Legislature intended its approval to be the last substantive step authorizing the district to begin operation.”
McGrath also held that state law requires the Board of Regents to submit a recommendation on a community college district for legislative approval. It does not, however, require the Board of Regents to approve the creation of the district.
Opinions of the attorney general carry the weight of law unless a court overturns them or the legislature modifies the laws involved.