A school bus carries students from Death Valley High School in Shoshone… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
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.