A staccato rain hits the metal roof, the heater hums, the engine idles in a rhythmic rumble, and the driver chitchats.
For now, this school bus aside the curb at South Fork High School in Miranda is almost quiet, an empty-seated cavern of calmness on a Friday afternoon.
Then ... the door swings open and in bounds a roar that's anything but dull.
As if pressurized by a week of school, freshly released from classrooms and questions, about 60 teenagers ascend the steps in a steady, swift, focused flow. They hit the center aisle, conform to a single file and move toward the choicest remaining seats. Each student seems to carry on at least one loud conversation, some seemingly with themselves.
It's a cohort based not on aptitude, gender, grade level, family income nor ethnicity, but on a string of geography shared day in and day out. It creates an impromptu after-school study group on wheels for Socialization 101, where children learn about going along, standing strong, flirting, not hurting, conversing, convulsing, enduring a doofus, sharing a seat and more.
As the bus pulls out from the high school, a boy in the back unburdens himself with loud, passionate, creative cussing about a teacher who allegedly targets him repeatedly for unjust persecution. Driver Matt Stark, who knows the teacher and the student, tracks the outburst in the rearview mirror, inquires about its impetus, acknowledges the potential for injustice, and then calls for the plaintiff to quiet down and sit down. A measure of calm comes ... on Stark's second call.
While Stark yields some disciplinary ground, he maintains control. "I consider their time on this bus as their time," he says. "They've just put in a full day at school."
Though he's only been driving the bus for three weeks, he knows. He's one of at least four Southern Humboldt Unified School District drivers who rode the district's buses themselves as children. He rode Bus No. 40; now he drives Bus No. 6. It's a temporary stint that fits between his seasonal work with California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, yet he says, "I can see the fulfillment in those who make it a career. It's the kids. You get to know them. You're taking care of them."
For about 4,600 children in Humboldt County, every school day starts at a bus stop -- and every bus starts with a driver.
"Some of these kids have had the same driver their entire (school) lives," says Jim Stewart, superintendent of Southern Humboldt Unified School District. "The bus driver is the first person they see in the morning and the last one they see in the afternoon. Some kids spend more time with them than they do with their teachers."
From Shelter Cove to Pecwan, along the seams of river valleys and coastal plains, drivers of the roughly 100 buses in the county's 29 school districts retrace routes a few hundred times a year. Collectively covering more than a million miles annually on county roads and highways, the bus routes run like threads through swaths of stretched-out geography.
As they have for generations, the routes connect children to their education, their teachers, their bus drivers, and to each other. They run like cords past pockets of houses and dirt-road tributaries; they connect neighbor to neighbor; and they strengthen the fabric of close-knit, far-flung communities. Unless they're cut.
In mid-December, a $248 million mid-year reduction in state school-transportation funds suddenly took half of what districts in California were geared to spend this year on busing, including nearly $2 million from Humboldt County schools. It left communities, especially rural ones, trying to stitch together ways to keep the buses running.
Immediately, the Los Angeles Unified School District sued the state, claiming the cuts would curtail federally mandated desegregation efforts.
From Southern Humboldt, where the busing cost per student is 20 times that of L.A. and board trustees also view the issue through the lens of civil rights and equal access to education, a caravan was dispatched to Sacramento. In buses and cars, scores of students, school officials, drivers and parents took their protest signs and pleas to the Capitol Jan. 24 to meet with Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro and State Sen. Noreen Evans. (NPR's California Report covered the Southern Humboldt campaign.)
According to Chesbro, their message was clear: "Home-to-school transportation may be an ‘extra' for some districts. But there are some places where home-to-school transportation is the key to whether education even exists for some children."
A coalition of rural and urban legislators and education organizations leaned on the governor, and legislative gears turned to reverse the cuts. While Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he'll sign a bill restoring this year's funding, he has proposed a 2012-2013 state budget that eliminates school-transportation funds entirely.
So, how did school buses reach this point? And where do they go from here?
The state budget that was hammered out last summer included a so-called "trigger" provision -- Assembly Bill 121 -- that allowed the governor to make additional, immediate cuts from a menu of 15 options if projected revenues fell short in December. When revenues lagged, Brown pulled the trigger, cutting, along with others, option 14: the $248 million school transportation funds.
(When AB 121 first came up in the Assembly, Republicans opted out of the process and the bill passed 49-0 with only Democratic members -- including Chesbro -- voting. Later, with amendments, it passed the Assembly, 51-28, and the Senate, 23-17, with both Evans and Chesbro voting "Aye." Chesbro said he voted for it because he hoped the cuts wouldn't get triggered and a budget needed to be passed.)
In January, as the trigger's reverberations reached the state Legislature, two bills emerged to restore the bus funding. Assembly Bill 1448 would have drawn the $248 million from the state's general fund; however, because it would add a quarter-billion to the state's deficit, it was destined to run into a proverbial ditch on the governor's desk.
Senate Bill 81 would replace the funds instead by spreading the $248 million cut evenly across the state's schools based on districts' "average daily attendance." The tradeoff: To restore the transportation funds, every district in the state would lose about two-thirds of 1 percent of its ADA-based state funding. Rather than imposing undue burdens on rural districts heavily reliant on busing, every district would experience a sliver of pain.
According to Southern Humboldt's Stewart, statewide SB 81 would cut each district's funding for the rest of the year by about $46 per student. For his district, SB 81 would mean a cut of about $35,000 (compared to the $450,000 lost to the trigger cut).
"Generally all funding is tied to ADA," he said. "We used to get block grants, but that went away."
If and when the governor signs the bill -- could be any day now -- the buses, for now anyway, will roll as they had before the trigger was pulled.
"When we get through with this short-term battle, we'll have to actively battle to find alternative ways to fight the reductions in next year's budget," Chesbro said. "I hope we don't have to fight this battle twice."
December's triggered cuts hit two local districts particularly hard -- Southern Humboldt and Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District. Each has about 20 buses. The next largest district bus fleets -- Eureka, Fortuna and Northern Humboldt Unified High School District (serving Arcata and McKinleyville) -- each have nine or 10.
The U.S. Census puts Southern Humboldt and Klamath-Trinity in its sparsest, most distant category -- "rural remote." The bureau might also add "rugged rainy." These are realms where the rivers rise often, cutting deeper into an unsteady melange of forested landscape; where hillsides hovering over road cuts get heavier with saturation.
In no time, the passenger windows on Bus No. 6 are thickly fogged by condensed conversation, yet very few get wiped to clear a view to the outside. The students, generally ranging from eighth- to 11th-graders, have seen it all before a thousand times. Their focus is inward, perhaps to a huddle over the center aisle or to their own thoughts.
With headphones plugged into iPods, a few ignore the roar, which diminishes some, but not much and only momentarily, as about half the riders disembark at Redway Elementary School. It's the first stop, about 20 minutes into the ride, and serves as a depot for those catching rides later or spending the afternoon in town.
Back on the bus, the audio track remains loud, spiked with socializing and social criticism that can be severe, sincere, reckless, refined and real. The amplitude steadily rises with a conversation that weaves between Christianity, Santa Claus, priests and sexuality until a boy overrides it with an urgent plea:
"Stop with the religion talk! This always goes nowhere fast."
The subject shifts.
A quick ridership survey, by a show of held-up fingers, reveals that about a third have ridden the bus for up to six years, about a third have ridden it for seven to nine years, and a third are, for the moment, not paying any adults any unnecessary attention.
On the driver's radio comes a call from dispatch: A mom missed picking her son up at school by 30 seconds; he got on the bus, but she wants him with her; plans are made for an unscheduled stop to hand him off; and the bus pulls over. The boy reacts with confusion -- "My mom? What? Here?" -- then gathers his goods and lumbers off with minimal fanfare.
The bus rolls on. Looking accustomed to sharing a bench seat with each other, two girls -- one in 10th grade, the other in 11th -- continue a quiet conversation. Then, as the bus approaches her stop, one of them bolts upright with a realization: "Oh my God!! I forgot to call my mom (to let her know I took the bus). I'm gonna have to walk home in the rain!"
A boy consoles her: "It's not so bad."
"It's FIVE miles," she replies before getting off where a dirt road comes in from the backcountry.
Led by alpha and beta males, the cohort's conversation continues to veer across the adolescent mindscape from topic to topic:
O.J. Simpson's full name ("it's Orenthal James"); local radio ("this song is really annoying"); Bruno Mars ("I don't usually like mainstream music"); ancestry ("I'm part Asian." "No you're not." "Really. My great-grandpa was Filipino."); quotes from the movie "Super Troopers" ("The snozzberries taste like snozzberries"); explosives and snacks ("I nearly blew up the Miranda Market in sixth grade; I put a Poptart in the microwave for like three minutes and it practically exploded."); and views on sex (don't ask, won't tell).
Southern Humboldt, formed by combining 19 independent districts in 1948, today enrolls about one student for each of its 773 square miles. About 700 of them ride the bus each day to one of five elementary schools, South Fork High School or the Osprey Learning Center. Until this year, its transportation had been fully funded by the state.
Faced with a $450,000 cut to its $1.1 million annual transportation budget (which was already hit with a $227,000 cut last summer), Southern Humboldt's school board voted Jan. 3 to send 13 layoff notices -- to its drivers, mechanic and transportation supervisor. On Jan. 20, the board authorized drawing $90,000 from the district's reserve funds and up to another $245,000 next year to keep some buses rolling.
How would the district run buses with a quarter for every former dollar? By reducing daily routes from 1,200 to 300 miles. By laying off most of its transportation staff. By asking parents to deliver younger children to the elementary schools and to bring older ones close to the Highway 101 corridor.
"From there, we'll get them to Miranda [site of the South Fork High School and the Osprey Learning Center]. We're going to ask parents to depend on each other for carpooling," said Stewart. The district is also "giving serious consideration" to charging parents for bus passes, with exceptions for low-income families -- a strategy adopted in recent years by other school districts. The current level of service costs the district about $1,500 annually for each student rider.
"That's Plan B," he said. "Plan A is to lobby Sacramento. Specifically, we're going to ask them to stop this attack on rural education. Every additional dollar we spend on transportation is money coming straight from the classroom."
In the Klamath-Trinity district, the annual busing cost is about $1,440 per student riders. There each day, collectively about 600 students (about 60 percent of total enrollment) are bused along about 1,000 miles of roads to and from nine different schools, including Hoopa Valley High School.
Covering 940 square miles, the district is geographically the largest in Humboldt County and among the largest in the state. Its roads can be rough.
For example, most of the 26-mile route from Jack Norton Elementary School in the north to the high school is a one-lane road along the Klamath River bank, with steep cliffs, thick forests and free-range cattle. According to Klamath-Trinity Superintendent Michael Reid, about 12 students make the trip each day. With stops, roundtrip on some routes can take three hours or more.
The district also offers a daily 6 p.m. bus homeward-bound from Hoopa to serve students involved in tutoring, sports and other school activities.
Klamath-Trinity's share of the state's reduction amounted to a cut of about $330,000 -- roughly half -- from the district's transportation funding.
According to Reid, the district kept a finger on the pulse of the budget. "There were clues in the governor's proposal that trouble could be triggered," he said.
Early on the district adopted a strategy to draw up to $600,000 from its reserves to buy time, maintaining service levels for this year and next. The district's budget committee has held weekly open forums since October. Meanwhile, Reid keeps pushing this message: "This isn't the district doing this to you. This is embedded language in the state-adopted budget."
"We have enough reserves to sustain that first-round blow, but it's a serious encroachment on future spending," he said. "It's going to hurt us in the long run. Our community is going to have to adjust to the final blow."
School officials and community members are in the "exploring stage," he said. Among the strategies being considered are reducing the number of routes, reducing the "radius of service," consolidating drop-off points, and charging parents who have the means for bus service. The district recently initiated discussions with the Yurok tribal transportation system about ways to help the district.
"The goal is to minimize the impact on students and their families," Reid said. "But we have to change the service model. We have to get away from what we're doing," he said. "We all hope for a repeal of the state's cuts; but we have fiduciary responsibility to keep the district solvent."
After Bus No. 6 crosses over the Mattole River, Stark guides it into a gravel clearing pocked with puddles to drop off a girl who transfers like clockwork to a waiting SUV. As the road ascends toward the last ridge, ridership dwindles to three boys and three girls.
A girl curls up to return to "Paycheck," a 1952 sci-fi collection by Philip K. Dick. The book begins: "All at once he was in motion. Around him smooth jets hummed. He was on a small private rocket cruiser, moving leisurely across the afternoon sky, between cities."
By the last crest toward the coast, more than hour into the ride, the group has quieted down before the descent toward Shelter Cove.
Then, unprompted, one student muses on the journey and its length: "You get used to it." Another adds, "I don't even notice it after awhile." They both talk of friends from town who can't fathom it as a daily routine.
At the Shelter Cove Fire Department, 33 miles from Miranda, Stark releases his last few charges into the gale-blown elements of a raging downpour. Parked parents wait behind windshields nearby.
After a break to stretch, Stark settles back behind the wheel and heads the bus back up the hill, back across Bear Creek, toward a particularly hairy hairpin turn.
"On the way down you can keep the bus in your lane," he says. "But on the way up you have to look up the hill to make sure no one's coming, then get in the ‘wrong' lane and make the turn. And do it slowly."
At a crawl, he intensely eyeballs the road up ahead. It's clear, so he takes over the curve's outside, on-coming lane. A rain-swollen waterfall cascades next to the bus on the uphill bank; and, from around the bend up ahead, a truck comes slowly downhill in the bus's temporary lane. Everyone's paying attention, wheels roll into rightful places, and nothing goes wrong.
Later, on a flat stretch near Briceland, Stark pulls over one last time, letting a trailing car pass by. "I hate driving behind buses," he says.
Along the Eel River, along the Klamath River, and in rural districts throughout the state, people are getting behind school buses. After the abrupt detour of the triggered cuts, there's no sign on the road ahead that offers much hope for next year. Communities worry that the impacts of major reductions in school transportation will create a downward spiral:
As bus service declines, more students will be home-schooled, will transfer to other districts, or will simply miss school more often. Then average daily attendance (ADA) will decline and with it the lion's share of a district's funding; and, ultimately, like a fractured hillside subjected to a succession of storms, education will erode further.
In the drivers' lounge of Southern Humboldt's transportation yard, a couple of seasoned drivers in between runs take refuge from the roads and the rain. They talk of premature retirement, finding other jobs, a recent back-of-the-bus bullying incident, and how there used to be twice as many drivers and mechanics a generation ago. But mostly they wonder aloud about how families on the geographic and economic fringes are going to make it.
Mary Hays, a Southern Humboldt bus driver for four years, says, "One mom told me, ‘I'm not smart enough to home-school.' But I'm most concerned about those families with no car, no money to ride the bus, no money to move, and no money to home-school."
Bobby Lahr has been driving the district's buses since 1989. Before that, in the 1970s, he rode them to junior high and high school. He and his wife have no children of their own; but he's come to know hundreds whom he's watched over as they've grown up along his routes.
"Somewhere along the line," he says, "people have forgotten what this is all about. It's about the kids. It's about our future. They have a right to have at least as good an education as we had."