University leaders and students began their uphill battle Wednesday to persuade two-thirds of the 2019 Legislature to approve borrowing millions to renovate Montana State University’s Romney Hall.
MSU President Waded Cruzado said the Bozeman campus has grown so much, she needs “classrooms, classrooms, classrooms.” She testified in favor of House Bill 14, the so-called bonding bill, before a joint meeting of the Joint Appropriations subcommittees on Long Range Planning and Education.
MSU is asking for $32 million to renovate the historic 97-year-old building, originally a gym. The plan is to transform it from a musty old building with four classrooms seating 140 students into a clean, well-lit building with 19 classrooms to teach 1,000 students per hour.
Renovation would also create more space for MSU’s crowded Veterans Center, writing and math centers that help students succeed, Cruzado said.
This is the fifth legislative session in which MSU has sought money to fix up Romney, Cruzado said, ticking off 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.
Two years ago Romney Hall was the only university project in the governor’s infrastructure plan. Though a majority of legislators supported the bill, it failed by falling just short of the two-thirds vote needed to approve debt.
This time the Montana University System is also asking for $4.2 million to expand a dental hygienist training clinic at MSU Great Falls, to increase the number of hygienist students trained from 18 to 26 a year.
And it is requesting $2 million to build greenhouse laboratories at four Montana Agricultural Experiment Station research centers to expand research on improving crops, fighting pests and surviving drought.
Taylor Blossom, Associate Students of MSU president, led students in testifying that crowding is affecting teaching at MSU and renovating Romney would improve education for nearly 17,000 students.
Sheridan Johnson, an ASMSU senator, said her Spanish class held in Romney was dusty, drafty and “very cold.” Geneva Zoltek, MSU student lobbyist, said an interior design class meets in what used to be men’s locker rooms and uses the old shower room for storage.
Eric Burke of the Montana Federation of Public Employees said in the last eight years voters in 150 Montana cities and small towns have approved bond debt for important projects and it’s high time the Legislature do so for MSU. A representative for the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce agreed.
Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education, said Romney has no fire sprinklers, almost no smoke detection, old energy-wasting windows, old heating and cooling systems and no handicapped access. Christian said three sessions ago lawmakers asked if renovating Romney was really necessary because “What if (MSU) growth slows?” It hasn’t, he said, and even if enrollment stopped growing today the space would still be needed.
Cruzado said MSU graduated a record 3,232 students last year. Five years ago lawmakers asked the University System to improve its performance and MSU listened, she said. The Bozeman campus has increased graduation rates, raised the freshman retention rate to a 30-year high and lowered average student debt by $1,200.
“It’s really hard not to be impressed by the work you’re doing at MSU,” said Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, chair of the Long Range Planning subcommittee.
“This isn’t a case of ‘Build it and they will come.’ They’ve already showed up,” said Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade.
Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said he appreciates MSU’s improvements in four-year graduations and student debt. But Cuffe said two years ago some legislators complained they felt “deceived” because Romney’s renovation included a new building.
Cruzado explained that to maximize classroom space in Romney, they have to find other space for two tenants — ROTC’s equipment storage and some health and human development faculty.
Tracy Ellig, MSU’s chief lobbyist, said the $32 million for Romney includes money to build a 5,500-square-foot, steel-sided building for ROTC and a 14,500-square-foot, brick building for health and human development.
Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, said fellow legislators have said MSU does so well getting wealthy alumni to donate millions for new business and engineering buildings, why doesn’t it just get money from wealthy donors for Romney. Woods said he believes “it’s the job of the state to support education.”
Joe Schumacher, MSU veteran services director, said more than 600 veterans use the crowded Veterans Center to meet tutors, seek help with veterans benefits, study, eat lunch, socialize and talk with a mental health counselor. If Romney is renovated, Ellig said, the Vets Center space would more than quadruple, from 750 to 3,200 square feet.
Several people from Great Falls spoke in favor of expanding and modernizing the dental hygienists clinic, saying it trains people for good paying jobs that improve the health of Montanans.
Darrin Boss, research center department head of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, said building four heated greenhouse labs would extend the 90-day growing season to allow year-round research on herbicide-resistant weeds, drought resistance and pests.
MSU is also seeking in House Bill 5 the Legislature’s permission to spend money it has raised from grants, donations and other sources for several building projects. This bill doesn’t create debt, which means it doesn’t need a two-thirds vote.
MSU projects in HB5 include $20 million to build the American Indian Hall; $9 million to move the facilities yard out of old Quonset huts on South Seventh Avenue to pre-fabricated buildings on the east edge of campus and free up some prime real estate for a potential major campus building; $12 million to add onto the Visual Communications Building to expand Montana PBS; $4 million to remodel Harrison Hall for the new hospitality management program; and $1.5 million to renovate Renee Library.
Asked about Romney’s chances of passage, Ellig said it’s way too early to try to count votes, and a lot of constituencies have projects in HB14.
“I remain incredibly optimistic with a lot of excitement,” he said. “We feel we’re trying to do something great for students.. It’s democracy. We make the best case we can.”