A third round of buyout offers is possible at the University of Montana, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said Tuesday.

In May and again in June, UM presented early retirement incentives to nearly 100 employees in two separate offers in an attempt to save $4 million in personnel costs. An estimated 20 people have accepted or expressed interest in the buyouts, although none of the deals is fully closed.

In recent years, UM has experienced budget trouble as a result of an enrollment decline, and the Montana Legislature set aside $2 million this year to help. That appropriation is slated to pay for retirement incentives, but a university official said $1.1 million will remain following the payouts.

In a conference call with the Montana Board of Regents, Commissioner Christian said the money was intended to help UM, and his office will exhaust its efforts in Missoula.

"We're actively working with Missoula on what the possibility of picking up more individuals would be," Christian said.

However, he said his office also has flexibility to offer the money to other campuses if the time comes.

After the teleconference, deputy commissioner for communications Kevin McRae said the Commissioner's Office won't make a decision on how to proceed with the $1.1 million until after both rounds of buyouts are finalized.

Last month, interim President Sheila Stearns said UM would be offering no other buyouts as far as she knew. She said she hoped the remaining funds could be set aside until the university completes a project to set program priorities; the work is underway, but won't be complete for a few months. 

"This increase in retirements, along with the funding for the related termination costs, will definitely help UM adjust to a realistic base budget for the future," said Stearns in an earlier statement.

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During the call, deputy commissioner for budget Tyler Trevor said the Montana University System plans to reduce its budget by 0.5 percent, or $1.1 million, in both the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years. Lower revenue expectations from the governor's office are triggering the cuts, he said.

UM's share is some $263,000, according to the Commissioner's Office.

The revenue collection might be low enough to trigger even more reductions, though, including one to the pay plan. Instead of budgeting $3.5 million for raises, Trevor said, the system might be looking at $1.1 million, or a cut of $2.4 million.

In other words, raises might go from 1 percent each year to zero. McRae said the Commissioner's Office is already directing campuses to submit operating budgets in September without raises.

"We're bargaining with 25 unions," McRae said in an email. 'We don't know yet whether there is funding for a pay plan at all. Time (and the bargaining/budget processes) will tell."

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The regents had earlier postponed a decision on increases for administrators and coaches until Tuesday, McRae said.

On the call, the board voted 5–2 to approve 1.5 percent raises for 80 employees who are coaches or administrative leaders instead of the proposed 2 percent increase, McRae said. Voting no were Regent Martha Sheehy and student Regent Chase Greenfield.

The regents generally said they wanted to be responsive to difficult financial times in Montana, McRae said.

Some 8,900 other faculty, staff and employees already received salary adjustments in January 2016 and 2017, but the 80 professionals on the agenda this week had not, he said. The raises approved Tuesday will take effect July 2, 2017.

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Reporter for the Missoulian