MISSOULA — The Montana Board of Regents is likely to vote this week to hire the state’s next commissioner of higher education at an annual salary of $283,300.

The university system has negotiated a 30-month contract with Clayton Christian, the recent regents’ chairman and a Missoula native, which will be retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year.

That annual salary is a pay increase of $69,487 above what Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns earns currently, but it’s the same annual salary as University of Montana President Royce Engstrom and Montana State University President Waded Cruzado.

The state has offered Christian a deferred compensation package worth $455,000 over 10 years, if the commissioner stays on for five or more years. That is slightly less than the deferred compensation plans offered to both Engstrom and Cruzado, which are worth $500,000 each.

The deferred compensation plan becomes available to the 46-year-old Christian at age 65, when he will receive $35,000 annually for three years and $50,000 annually for seven years, totaling $455,000 over a decade.

The plan is a way for the university system to sweeten the pot for members of Montana’s upper-level university management, who are generally making $60,000 to $80,000 less than their counterparts in four surrounding states, said Kevin McRae, associate commissioner for communication and human resources.

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Deferred compensation packages have been offered only to Christian, Cruzado and Engstrom so far. Whether this will become common practice going forward, McRae couldn’t say.

“Looking into the unknowable future, the greater our ability to offer a competitive salary, the lesser the likelihood that deferred compensation plays a role,” he said.

The regents meet in Helena on Thursday and Friday and will vote on whether to hire Christian as the university system’s next top administrator.

The search process to replace Stearns, who announced plans to retire last May, was halted abruptly before Christmas when the regents decided they wanted Christian to apply for the job.

Christian has served on the Board of Regents for the past six years and was until recently serving as its chairman.

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