Reporting 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 Boards Assn.
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 academic stimulation.
“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 students.
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 per student.
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 districts.”
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 Valley.
“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 hours.
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 year.
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 the window.
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.”