A deficit reducing plan by state legislators and the governor has reduced funding for school transportation by half. For Death Valley School District, where some students clock in more than 120 miles round-trip everyday to get to class, the reduction could spell the end of the district. The cut could also sever the social life lines for these students in isolated areas. Photo courtesy Death Valley Chamber of Commerce
The latest idea to trim the budget presented by the stateâ€™s elected leaders is to cut transportation funding to schools. The cuts amount to half the transportation budget for all California schools.
According to opponents of the move, the transportation cuts not only make it tough for students to get an education, but to learn social skills and that connection to the outside world that school provides but which cannot be taught via a computer.
The cuts are also being called unfair by rural school districts, as state funding is based on each districtâ€™s cost. For Los Angeles School District, the cut will be approximately $59 per student, while in Inyo County, the cuts equal more than $200 a student. For Death Valley, the cut amounts to $1,700 per student.
The funding ended Jan. 1, in an unprecedented sudden finality, leaving Death Valley Superintendent and Principal Jim Copeland to wonder how school will continue for students in Death Valley.
For schools in urban areas, like San Francisco where most kids take public transportation, the cut is not as big a deal. But for Death Valley School District, the cuts amount to nearly 10 percent of the budget. This has left the Southeast Inyo school district wondering how it is going to educate students if they canâ€™t get to class.
The problem has been called monumental for the tiny district. There are four students in grades 6-12 that ride the bus more than two hours a day to get to and from class in Shoshone and home at Furnace Creek.
And these are just the mid-year cuts. Terry McAteer, Inyo County superintendent of schools, said that the stateâ€™s plan for the 2012-13 fiscal year is to completely eliminate transportation funding for schools. That amounts to $208,000 in cuts for a district with an annual budget of $1.3 million.
Copeland said after reviewing the numbers and school funding projections that he doesnâ€™t expect a light at the end of the financial tunnel, in terms of regaining transportation funding or even issuing cost-of-living allowances, until 2016.
Copeland said there seems to be a lull of workers with families and children working for the Park Service or Xanterra, Death Valley Parkâ€™s concessionaire. He said he could see 20 new students from families coming to work at Death Valley next year, or none.
These cuts, he explained, are part of the mantra of school officials and legislators of â€śKeeping cuts away from the classroom.â€ť Unfortunately, Copeland continued, these cuts are threatening the very means of getting students to the classroom.
â€śHow are they going to get those kids educated?â€ť McAteer said was the big question in light of the cuts.
Copeland and McAteer have been working on solutions, but there are not many options, McAteer said. Copeland said the district has already made draconian cuts to salaries and other amenities and stripped its budget down to the bone as it is.
Internet and computer classes are out of the question as most of Death valley and Southeast Inyo are still using slow-as-molasses dial-up service.
There is the four-student K-5 Cow Creek School at Furnace Creek which McAteer said officials are looking into possibly turning into a K-12 school that could take the four older students in. This would create a one-room, fully self-contained school with one teacher. McAteer said there still remains the question of being able to offer these students a â€śquality education.â€ť
He said he questioned how well a student will be able to learn â€“ high school chemistry, for example â€“ in a one-room classroom alongside a third-grader that also needs individual attention.
Other options may include charging students/families for bus rides, as other districts in the state are doing.
Copeland said Death Valley may be a preview of what other districts will be facing in years to come.
This could create a rash of absenteeism as some families will not be able to afford to pay for the rides, McAteer explained, since the reason some students ride the bus now is because their family cannot afford any other way to transport kids to class.
Copeland added that for these students, school is their social network, itâ€™s where they meet with friends and learn those important skills of how to get along with other people.
Copeland said accomplishments and tests can be measured but there are some skills that cannot be quantified.
And, Copeland said the students have made their voices heard that they want to go to school.
Copeland said that his reaction to this impossible situation is to â€śget the word out.â€ť He said heâ€™s trying to use the power of the press to let people know how dire Death Valley School Districtâ€™s situation is.
Copeland added that he recently attended a conference of educational leaders where the theme was how to deal with these cuts that do not seem to be getting any better. Copeland said these cuts and lack of services may be the norm for what he called the great social equalizer in American democracy â€“ public education.