2012-01-19 "Death Valley students face loss of lifeline; California has pulled funding for school transportation for the rest of this fiscal year and may eliminate it entirely next year. In Death Valley, where some students have a two-hour round trip, the cut is 'catastrophic.'" by Teresa Watanabe from "Los Angeles Times"
from Death Valley -- As the day's first light streaks pink across the
sky, a yellow school bus appears on a lonely road leading to an Indian
village in Death Valley National Park. The bus rumbles past desert
mesquite and ocher mountains to pick up Marlee RedWolf Rave for one of
the longest school bus rides in California.
It is 6:54 a.m. Marlee, a 14-year-old with raven hair and red nail
polish, climbs aboard. She is one of nine students who spend more than
two hours riding this bus 120 miles every school day to and from the
Furnace Creek area to their school in Shoshone.
The long distance and light passenger load make this bus ride
exorbitantly expensive. The Death Valley Unified School District spends
about $3,500 a year for each of its 60 students on home-to-school
transportation — compared with about $26 per student in more densely
populated districts, according to data compiled by the California School
So when Gov. Jerry Brown announced that lagging state revenue would
require eliminating all school transportation funding for the rest of
this fiscal year, it hit this tiny school district harder than just
about any other in California. Death Valley Supt. Jim Copeland calls the
cut, which took effect Jan. 1, "catastrophic."
For students like Marlee, the issue goes way beyond dollars and cents.
The bus is her lifeline from the desolation of the desert to a wider
world of teachers and friends, school sports and art projects and
"School is the highlight of my life, and we can't get to school without the buses," Marlee said after a recent morning ride.
Educators statewide have decried the busing cuts as particularly unfair
to small and rural districts that shoulder disproportionately high
transportation costs. They are scrambling to reverse the move with legal
action, letter-writing campaigns and legislative lobbying. Some are
arguing that if cuts have to be made, they should be distributed
equitably across the state.
The Small School Districts' Assn. is advising its 330 members to
consider transportation fees and independent study for far-flung
State funding is based on each district's transportation costs.
Districts in rural mountain counties such as Tuolumne and Mariposa, and
in such desert communities as Inyo, are losing $200 or more per student.
Those in densely populated urban and suburban counties such as Los
Angeles, Orange and Riverside will lose $50 or less. Los Angeles
Unified, the largest school system in the state, is taking a hit of $59
Because Brown acted in the middle of the school year, districts got
half the state funding they were counting on. Next year, they'll get
nothing: Brown has proposed wiping out the entire $619-million school
transportation program. Without state funding, districts would have to
find the money elsewhere or stop busing their students.
"Home-to-school transportation is about the worst place to cut because
it hits districts so differently," said Dennis Meyers of the school
boards group, which is considering joining a lawsuit filed last month by
L.A. Unified against the reductions. "It's a killer for some
Southern Humboldt Unified recently sent layoff notices to all 14
transportation department employees. The district spends about $1,780 a
year per student transporting 650 of them in 11 buses over 200,000 miles
of rugged mountain roads, Supt. Jim Stewart said.
Without relief, he said, the district will run a skeleton program next
year for physically disabled students who are guaranteed busing under
federal law and for a limited number of others. Parents may have to
carpool or buy public bus passes, he said.
That won't work for most families in Death Valley, where 85% of the students come from low-income households, Copeland says.
For Marlee, no bus means no school. Her single mother, Deb Watterson,
who is also a Death Valley school board member, hasn't had a steady job
since 2004, when she was paid through a federal grant to monitor wells
on her Timbisha Shoshone tribal land.
Watterson said she suffers from several health problems, survives on
welfare and food stamps and could never afford the $5-a-gallon gas to
make the round trip every day herself. Sometimes, she said, she can't
afford the gas to make monthly board meetings.
Home schooling is also out. The family has no computer or Internet
access, and Watterson, 53, said she feels unqualified to teach her
daughter because she never finished high school herself.
In this distant outpost, where only about 10 families live in the
Indian village and 24 others were counted in the 2010 census for Furnace
Creek, tutors are few and far between.
Watterson would never consider putting her daughter in boarding school.
The idea stirs ugly images of the well-documented beatings and other
abuse inflicted on Native American children in some Christian boarding
schools, Watterson said.
Moving closer to school is out of the question; she can't afford to pay
rent. The family's compact two-bedroom home, decorated with Indian
quilts and art, is fully paid for.
In any case, Watterson said, she never intends to leave the land of her
ancestors again. An interlude in Des Moines before Marlee was born
depressed her — the concrete buildings, the pollution and noise, the
crime. "I felt like I was choking to death," she said.
She missed the vast beauty of her tribal homeland — the desert blooms
and splash of starlight, the yowl of coyotes piercing an otherwise
silent night. Shortly after Marlee was born, she returned to Death
"This is our land — all of it," said Watterson, sweeping her arm across
the desert vista as she and Marlee sat outside with Batman, their dog.
"I'm never leaving Timbisha again."
Other Death Valley families are considering their options. Barb and
Paul Taylor say they may move to Texas with their son, 11-year-old
Zachary. They both have steady work at a Furnace Creek restaurant but
say the drive to school would cost them $1,000 a month in gas — wiping
out much of their disposable income — and conflict with their work
They can afford a computer and Internet service, should home schooling
be their only option, but say they would not want that for their son.
"School is about more than learning; it's the only time Zach can socialize with other kids," his mother said.
Paul Taylor said the transportation cuts amount to discrimination.
"The poor won't have an opportunity to educate their kids, and this is
the only chance they have to get out of poverty," he said. "They'll be
forced to use welfare and cost the state more in the long run."
In Death Valley, the $210,000 transportation budget is one-sixth of the
district's $1.2-million operating budget, a far higher proportion than
in more compact districts. Copeland said he will use the district's
reserve funds to maintain bus service for the rest of the school year,
at a cost of $105,000.
But there won't be any money left to pay for busing next year, he said.
That's why Copeland has discussed layoffs or pay cuts with some of his
22 employees. He has contacted his state legislative representatives
about trying to restore Death Valley's state funding.
Copeland also supports Brown's proposed ballot measure to raise money
for schools through tax increases, although the nonpartisan state
legislative analyst has said the taxes could bring in much less than the
governor is counting on.
At least for now, the buses are still rolling.
On a recent afternoon at Death Valley High School, Marlee chats with a
classmate as she works on an art project about a rare trip away from the
desert to San Diego. The students wonder whether there will be enough
money to bus the track team to meets; if not, there may be no track this
The school has already pulled out of a basketball and volleyball league
because the games were as far as seven hours away by bus and required
overnight stays. Instead, Copeland is trying to arrange games with
schools "close to home," which means within a two-hour drive.
At 2:30 p.m., Marlee, Zachary and seven classmates board the bus for
the long ride home. Most of them sleep. Zachary listens to Usher and
Bruno Mars on his iPod Nano, puzzles over math homework and stares out
On good days, there is something new to see: thick blankets of fog and
mist, maybe some road kill, maybe a red-tailed hawk. Mostly, it is a
long, boring trip.
But the students can't imagine life without it.
"Without the bus," Marlee said, "I would die."