After years of being subject to the whims of politics, local school officials in the valley have tempered their expectations of the state and federal government to provide a consistent and sensible source of revenue and have, over the last year, turned their gaze homeward. For more years than most of the current board members have been serving on the Gunnison Watershed Board of Education, the Colorado Department of Education has been more a source of decrees and financial uncertainty than of guidance and continuity. Over the last half-decade, board members have been witness to an intensified teacher evaluation process through Senate Bill 191, the implementation of common core state standards, all while Big Brother snatches more than $2 million from the local school budget annually. Now, after a year of ups and downs—from the financial worries that have become routine and a discovered embezzlement scheme to unprecedented growth in the district, especially in the Crested Butte Community School—the board is left trying to provide the personal and cutting edge education those new students, and the current ones, expect, all on a reduced budget. School officials say they’ve taken all the cuts they can take without directly impacting students and classrooms. Already students are going to schools without fully funded language and arts classes, with bigger class sizes and with no counselors, among other things. In response, school district officials, from the board to the administrative council, are taking stock of what they can reasonably expect to have in the coming years and what they can reasonably want. The two don’t always align. In the reasonably want column, Superintendent Doug Tredway has signed on to a letter bound for the capitol from 160 school superintendents across the state telling the legislature that they’ve had enough of the budget cuts. It also suggests that $275 million of the state’s current budget surplus of more than $1 billion be put back into education. The expectation, for next year anyway, is that state funding will increase about $690,000 for the Gunnison Watershed schools, which are reimbursed for expanding student counts. District Business Manager Stephanie Juneau says a lot can change between now and the time the checks arrive. Some members of the board are doubtful that money can be counted on in lean years. There’s also the expectation that fixed costs at the district, like those for utilities and employee expenses, are going to continue to rise. To combat a completely uncontrolled rise in costs, the district has gotten creative and taken the reins with some of the seemingly mundane matters, like health insurance, which could have increased by as much as 25 percent a year with a private insurance carrier. Instead, the district last year started a partially self-insured health plan that Juneau expects to increase just 7 or 8 percent a year and allows the district to pay into what amounts to a health savings account and keep any of the money that isn’t spent paying out claims. “We cap your risk at $1.3 million,” Justin Troop of Hays Companies, the district’s health insurance consultant, told the board at a meeting last week. “So we said, worst-case scenario you’ll pay the same being self-funded as you would if you were fully insured. Why not get self-funded and if you do any better than a worst-case scenario, you get to keep your money. Whereas if you were fully insured, your insurance carrier would keep any extra money that was out there.” Dealing with an increase in fixed costs and less revenue is hard enough without worrying about embezzlement, but that’s just how the last year has gone. After the district and police made an uncanny connection between companies owned by the school district’s director of information technology and more than $600,000 in unaccounted-for technology funds, officials have been trying to sort through a tangled web of invoices and computer equipment, as well as civil lawsuits, insurance claims and criminal cases, to see where the district stands. A technology audit provided by the district’s other technology supplier, Mitchell and Company, showed that the district had software licenses that were out of date or unaccounted for and almost $760,000 in necessary upgrades to make over the next seven years. The criminal case against former IT director Cannon Leatherwood is ongoing, which puts a pause on the civil suit. However, the district, in an attempt to recover as much money as it can as soon as possible, is pursuing a payout of a $500,000 insurance policy. So far the insurance company has agreed to pay $360,000, but Juneau is holding out for the full half-million. And there’s an effort under way to gauge the feasibility of a tax increase to fund an expanded set of programs at the school and keep the budget in the black through whatever cuts may come from the state. That effort is still in the planning stage, but could go public soon. How much the district might ask for is still unknown. But so is a reliable plan that would continue to provide a quality education for our kids. Nothing’s easy but our school representatives are really trying and that’s something to appreciate.