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University of Montana interim President Sheila Stearns updated faculty and staff in April on fiscal issues facing the school.

The University of Montana will offer buyouts to non-faculty employees in an effort to reduce personnel costs — and in advance of "probable" involuntary terminations.

UM officials said details about voluntary severance packages would not be available until Wednesday.

President Sheila Stearns has said UM is "heavily staffed" and spends too much of its budget on personnel at some 89 percent. She has repeatedly said the portion allocated to salaries and benefits should be closer to a percent in the 70s.

“This severance offer is another strategy aimed at that goal and may also reduce the number of involuntary reductions we’ll be forced to make to align our personnel expenses,” Stearns said in a statement.

In an email, Stearns said she believes UM also will need to make layoffs, although a timeline was not immediately clear.

"Involuntary reductions will be triggered by projected fixed expenses that are greater than projected revenue for FY 2019," she wrote. "At this time that seems probable. This is even before anticipated reduced revenues due to the state’s fiscal challenges."

Projected shortfalls at the state mean the Montana University System is anticipating a possible cut of some $22 million a year, or about $5 million per year for UM, said university system spokesman Kevin McRae. The governor's office and Legislature are still in discussion about how to balance the budget.

"We won’t decide on the impacts to campuses until we know the amounts of any general fund changes that might become necessary," McRae said in an email.

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UM spokeswoman Paula Short said the university employs roughly 2,900 full-time equivalents, including 600 full-time faculty and 200 non-tenured, part-time faculty. She said the buyout offer would go to a subset of non-faculty members.

Earlier this year, UM offered two separate rounds of buyouts to faculty members, and it counted 41 fewer faculty members from last school year to this one. The figure included those who took buyouts as well as instructors who retired or left for other reasons.

Staff Senate President Maria Mangold said one difference between the offer that will be made to staff is it isn't going to be limited to employees who are closer to retirement. She also said the Staff Senate is in full support of the offers.

"We went to the administration pretty emphatically saying that there are a lot of staff who have approached us saying, 'If we had something similar to the (faculty offer), we would definitely take it,'" Mangold said.

However, she also said staff leaders want to be certain employees have all the information they need before acting on the buyouts.

"My greatest concern has been about making sure that staff have all of the possible information at their disposal before making a very, very tricky decision," Mangold said. "It's basically rolling the dice. It's a gamble."

The faculty offers included 50 percent of an employee's salary for the school year. Details about the staff offer will be provided at 11 a.m. and noon meetings Wednesday in the UC Theatre.

The sessions will be live-streamed on Montana Community Access Television.

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This year, the Montana Legislature set aside $2 million to help UM. The university used some of the money to buy out faculty and Short said UM hopes to tap the fund for staff severance, as well.

UM has seen an enrollment drop since 2011 and has experienced related budget challenges. In January 2016, the university announced it would lay off 27 people, and reduce 192 full-time positions in all, on or before June 30, 2016. UM earlier said the reductions accounted for $7.5 million.

Short said it's hard to determine the number of employees UM should have, but she said the Montana Board of Regents has adopted a recommendation (the Higher Education Cost Adjustment) that spending on personnel be at 75 percent.

"We know we need to reduce the current number of employees to get closer to that percentage," Short said.

In a news release, UM noted it has also slowed hiring in its quest to cut spending on personnel, "with all recruitments for positions supported by the general fund requiring presidential approval."

UM also is in the midst of a program prioritization effort that Stearns said will further inform the overhaul of academic programming and administrative services offered at the institution.

“Ideally, we would’ve preferred to wait for the conclusion of our prioritization efforts to make some of these decisions,” Stearns said in a statement. “However, this offer creates choices and options for our employees. Our budget challenges — largely as the result of spending close to 90 percent on personnel — are significant, and strategies to address them cannot be deferred.”

The president said UM will have additional work to do once the prioritization recommendations are final. A task force will forward its recommendations to the president by the end of November.

Stearns earlier said she does not want to postpone budget decisions and wants to leave the table set for the new president, General Electric executive Seth Bodnar, who takes the helm in January 2018.

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