For years, the word "cuts" has been associated with school districts all over the state and the country. Millions in shortfalls have come to be expected year in and year out.
But this year in western Colorado, things look to be turning around.
While some districts continue to face difficult decisions, others are preparing to spend more. And, the six biggest organizations on the Western Slope are even talking about giving their teachers a raise.
Last year, Garfield Number 16 School District dealt with its lowest enrollment numbers since 2005. A lack of funding tied to student count forced the district's School Board to freeze salaries and leave 18 positions empty.
"When I first got here, we were the fastest growing school district in the state of Colorado," Superintendent Ken Haptonstall said last year. "Two years ago, I think you could have counted us as the fastest shrinking school district in the state of Colorado."
In light of the gloomy budget picture, Haptonstall asked for a pay-cut, lowering his salary from $127,720 in 2010 to $126,698 in 2011. And unlike his one-time $51,500 bonus last year, there were no stipends handed out in 2011-2012. There was, however, a wage adjustment of $1,000 for all full-time employees and $500 for part-timers and Haptonstall was included.
The focus quickly turned to upcoming budget cuts at Garfield Number 16. But after student numbers rebounded a bit, the district still faces $211,835 in cuts ahead of next fall.
To offset the shortfall, the district has adopted a four-day school week and will dip slightly into its reserves.
Farther east on I-70, Garfield's Re-2 School District is expecting a slight increase of students for 2012. But to address $1.2 million in budget cuts ahead of the school year, it is also going to a four day week.
The move saves about $500,000 and leaves $700,000 to be cut.
"To me, it's probably our most positive option," School Board President Chris Pearson told us in March.
To make up the rest of the shortfall, the School Board is eliminating after-school programs, turning off cooling systems in school gymnasiums, offering early retirement, and reducing district administration position by 7.1%.
In the process, though, the district will not have to close any schools and will not lay anyone off. "It couldn't all be on our staff, the community has to absorb some of it," Pearson said.
Heading into 2011, everyone, including Superintendent Susan Birdsey, saw their salaries frozen for the fourth year in a row.
In Glenwood Springs at the Roaring Fork School District Office, staff is happy not to cut anything heading into 2012.
After a painful $3.6 million cut going into this year, including 80 layoffs of full-time and part-time staff, district leaders are celebrating a narrow margin victory on a non-expiring mill levy override.
"It will bring in an additional 4.5 million dollars each year," Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Shannon Pelland explained.
The 54% approved mill levy override, we're told, guarantees that funding forever and allows the district to not only avoid layoffs and school closures but hire on more staff.
In fact, because of the mill levy, the district was able to reverse $300,000 in furlough days planned for staff this year.
"It's made a tremendous difference for us," Pelland explained. "It's allowed us to add back some 15 to 16 teaching positions we cut last year and some custodial positions."
In 2011, RFSD's Superintendent Judy Haptonstall kept her salary frozen for the fourth year in a row. "It was actually something that she decided," Pelland said.
"Her original contract had an escalation clause in it and she opted not to take any of those things because other staff salaries were being frozen."
After enduring two years of challenging budget cuts, Haptonstall is not returning to see more funding. Her contract was terminated by the School Board earlier this year after a disagreement between community members and the superintendent over her firing of popular elementary school principal Sonya Hemmen in 2011.
RFSD's School Board is currently finalizing an offer to a candidate for the superintendent position.
Farther south in Montrose, district leaders are the only other of our six profiled districts not cutting a dime ahead of next year.