It is 7 a.m. and Otis Lewis, a lean, long-bearded man with sharp blue eyes, is driving the nine winding miles from his home in Hidden Springs to a bus stop in the Angeles National Forest.
Lewis, 35, will deposit his cargo of three blond little girls--his 12-year-old daughter and two nieces--at Clear Creek Ranger Station, the designated school bus stop for his town.
At 7:15 a.m. Hidden Spring's six children will board a yellow school van that arrives with 11 children already aboard from Chilao, 20 miles away on Angeles Crest Highway. The 20-seat van will then drive the last six miles to schools in La Canada Flintridge.
Meanwhile, Lewis will head back to Hidden Springs, an 18-resident area spread along the Angeles Forest Highway, where he will work until the afternoon sets in. Then, it will be back down the highway to pick up the kids at 3 p.m.
Lewis isn't happy with his 36-mile school days.
"I haven't been able to take some jobs because of long-range planning on getting Espi to school," said Lewis, a carpenter.
Parents in the area are confronted by a transportation puzzle caused by geography, the state educational code, funding shortages and a low priority status in the transportation planning of the La Canada Unified School District.
There was a time when getting the children to school before the bell rang was easier. Eight years ago, the district maintained a kindergarten through 12th-grade school in Chilao. A school bus drove up Angeles Forest Highway to Hidden Springs and parents only had to take their children to the highway.
But, under the financial pressure of the 1970s, the district closed the school in Chilao and parents who lived in the remote Angeles Forest were suddenly faced with the problem of getting their children to the schools in La Canada Flintridge. The district stopped its bus service on Angeles Forest and initiated service to the Angeles Crest Highway.
That decision was made because more children lived in the Angeles Crest area, said Mark Facer, deputy superintendent of the district.
A quirky natural disaster had a hand in the area's low population. In 1978 a flash flood killed 11 people and destroyed many of Hidden Springs' buildings. After the flood, the area's 40 residents began moving away.
But since then, people have begun to move back into the Hidden Springs area, bringing more children.
The number of children fluctuates from year to year because of staff changes at the ranger station and Camp Colby, a recreation and seminar center owned by the United Methodist Church. Next fall, there will be two more elementary school-aged children living at Camp Colby, said Dorothy Crawford, a Camp Colby resident.
There are six children in the four families living in Hidden Springs: Lewis' child, his brother Ray's two children, Hidden Spring resident Kim Steward's child and Ken Duval's two children who live with him and his wife, Ynonna, at the Monte Cristo Ranger Station.
The consequences of home-to-bus stop transportation include insurance coverage for other people's children and interruption of work schedules, Lewis said. The 3,100-foot elevation of Hidden Springs can also mean harsh weather, causing dangerous road conditions, he said.
"When the snows come near L.A., we get it," Lewis said. "When the wind was blowing hard . . . I was getting some big rocks hitting the car. A school bus would have been better," Lewis said.
Over the past several years, Hidden Springs residents and Forest Service employees have asked the district for relief but their requests have always been rejected. Three years ago Christine Rose, district ranger for the Tujunga area, went to the La Canada Unified School District to request direct bus service for forest employees in her area.
"We asked if it was possible and they said no," Rose said. "Since it didn't look like it was feasible, we allowed the employees flexible time to pick up their kids."
Relying on the support of the state education code, Facer decided not to provide direct bus service to the Hidden Springs area. School districts are not required to provide transportation under the code.
Facer cites the limitations from the district's transportation budget and acknowledges that he doesn't know how high a priority mountain transportation would be even if the district received more money.
"I just can't see anybody living on the mountain without transportation," Facer said. "And it's the parents' responsibility, as far as the education code is concerned, to deposit their child at the school."
Home Education Suggested
The district spent $262,000 on transportation last year and received about 80% of that from the state, Facer said. A large proportion of the money is spent on mandatory transportation of special education students from La Canada Flintridge, Glendale and Burbank, Facer said. Bus service to the Angeles Forest cost the district $52,400.