Writers on the Range: What happens when schools just run out of money? | SummitDaily.com

Writers on the Range: What happens when schools just run out of money?

Jen Jackson
Writers on the Range

Last fall, a massive budget deficit was uncovered within the Grand County School District in Moab, Utah, leaving parents aghast. Because of mismanagement, the school district faced a cascade of shortfalls, from $1 million for the 2008-’09 school year and $1.4 million for 2009-’10, to $1.9 million for 2010-2011. Just before the holidays, the district unveiled a heartbreaking plan to cut costs in order to operate in the black once more.

The financial recovery plan involves laying off dozens of teachers and staff – a 15 percent reduction in total employee numbers. Student activity funds will be slashed by $100,000, and the teachers that remain will find their class sizes ballooning to as many as 45 students per class.

Recently, I saw a friend at the grocery store who’s involved with the school district. He was worried not just about lost jobs and crowded classrooms, but also about the very future of Moab.

Beyond the required reading, writing and arithmetic, will children here be taught to plan and dream for something more beyond the confines of valley walls and family history? We can remain a recreational hotspot for mountain bikers and ATVers, but that identity lacks heart. We need a hopeful future generation to live here year-round and maintain our community’s vibrant spirit – a spirit whose existence is independent from tourist dollars and visitor numbers.

I don’t know where I would be now without the kind of education I received when I was a kid. I feel fortunate to have made it through my school years before a time of budget restructuring hit Oregon’s schools. What challenged me in school were the advanced placement courses that taught me to think beyond the confines of the classroom and to develop a curiosity that ranged farther than the syllabus. Then there was the extracurricular involvement that imparted the importance of dedication, initiative and service to others.

These are, of course, precisely the school offerings that get the ax when budgets get cut. These days, it’s the same story for school districts all across the West, especially in rural areas. Funds are already scarce for economically and geographically isolated educators, and when massive state education budget cuts are handed down – such as the anticipated $260 million in cuts for Colorado’s schools next year – small districts are hit hardest.

Pueblo, Colo., for instance, may close several schools. In Arizona, a state facing a similar budget crisis, $180 million will be cut from textbook and technology funds alone, leaving rural schools disconnected from the wider world of ideas. In Utah, state legislators are discussing unconventional solutions such as doing away with the 12th grade altogether, or placing age-appropriate ads on school buses to generate needed revenue.

In light of these statewide budget woes, the discovery of unanticipated deficits within the Grand County School District hit Moab schools doubly hard. Yet voters here resoundingly rejected the school district’s “leeway” request for more money last November. Anger at the way the school district mismanaged money boiled over at the ballot box, and tax increases appeared unpalatable to rural residents facing a depressed economy. Now, Grand County remains one of only a few counties in the state unwilling to support a leeway tax to fund its schools. An anonymous donor recently surprised the school district with a gift of $700,000, but as our local paper put it, this is still a drop in the bucket.

How might this short-term frustration affect our future? I recently spoke with a woman from a small Colorado town whose school closed in the ’90s for lack of funding. The town became adrift without its educational anchor, though fortunately a charter school eventually opened.

“A lot of rural people don’t have very big dreams,” she said. “No one told them that they were going to amount to much, and now they’re telling that to their kids. In that sense, teachers are the most critical aspect of giving kids hope in this community, showing them that there’s a whole world out there, and nothing’s holding them back.”

While Moab’s schools are not in danger of closing, they become endangered when budgets get sliced to the bone. In such a climate of need, I pray that our over-burdened teachers can still find it within themselves to inspire a new generation.

Jen Jackson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. She writes in Moab, Utah.

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Of skinny red worms and Olympic skiers

By Jennie Lay/Writers on the Range

It’s so bizarre, it’s almost hard to believe: In downtown Steamboat Springs in western Colorado, on a local ski hill, there’s a small cave that’s become famous among some scientists. The red worms living inside are unique on land, leading researchers to speculate that they might resemble the kind of life existing on the planet Mars.

Last fall, a team of scientists, veteran cave explorers and a photographer gathered near the 100,000 year-old cave’s stinky opening below the ski jumps on Howelsen Hill, a location more famously known as home turf for much of America’s Nordic combined team, including 2010 Olympic silver medalist Johnny Spillane. Giant ventilation pumps whirred, pulling rotten-egg-smelling hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide out of the narrow cave so that the members of the Sulphur Cave Expedition could work their way in.

For the fourth time in two years, they braved the acidic atmosphere that burns holes through T-shirts and turns pennies black inside pockets. Undaunted by the slime coating every crevice, the 50-degree chill and the dark cramped spaces, the explorers were in search of something special: Worms.

Sulphur Cave’s acidic spring waters hold squirming clumps of blood-red worms unlike any that have ever been discovered on land before. The team first collected the worms during its initial expedition in 2007. After finding them again a year later, one of the team leaders, Norman Pace, a University of Colorado distinguished professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, began to suspect their biological significance. He’d previously studied the hydrogen sulfide-eating tubeworms that live along hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The worms in this cave appeared to be thriving in similarly harsh conditions.

But it wasn’t the worms that first drew scientific attention to Sulphur Cave. Veteran caver Mike Frazier, visiting Steamboat Springs on a ski trip a few years ago, observed “snottites” hanging inside the narrow entrance. Snottites is the official scientific name for soft colonies of microorganisms that bear a remarkable resemblance to the gooey nose drippings for which they are named. Snottites are so rare – there are only four other known occurrences in the world – that Frazier and his scientific buddies quickly obtained a smattering of university and museum grants and assembled the first Sulphur Cave Expedition in 2007.

As the expedition members slithered into Sulphur Cave again last fall, Fred Luiszer, a University of Colorado, Boulder, geologist and speleologist, stopped at the entrance to monitor gas concentrations. He measured hydrogen sulfide at 325 parts per million; the federal standard for maximum daily exposure is 10 parts per million. Carbon dioxide stood at 20.8 percent, which is four times the level that will kill you. Team members donned respirators before venturing to the back of the cave.

Photographer Norman Thompson captured Sulphur Cave’s beauty: The intricate masses of biological life on the cave walls resemble the folds of brain coral, lacy ceiling gypsum crystals glitter like starbursts and small yellowish stalactites and stalagmites cling to the walls and floor. The photographer also documented team members squeezing through dark claustrophobic spaces encrusted with biological goo: “It looked like about 10 people had thrown up on them. And that’s how they smelled, too.”

The team collected more of the pencil-lead-thin worms, and a month later, DNA analysis confirmed their genetic uniqueness. Sulphur Cave’s worms may be the first hydrogen-sulfide metabolizing organisms ever discovered on land, where they’ll be much easier to study than 14,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.

This 180 foot-long, often-overlooked cave gives scientists an easily accessible location to learn about the kind of environment, and possibly the organisms, that may exist on Mars or the moons of Jupiter.

“On other planets, those animals are probably going to be bacteria or bacteria-like, and they’re probably going to be living in environments similar to this,” Luiszer says. “By studying those things here on Earth, it’s going to be a lot easier for (scientists) to figure out where to look for life and what kind of equipment and instruments we’ll need.”

Team member Hazel Barton, co-star of the IMAX film “Journey Into Amazing Caves,” took some of the light-sensitive worms back to her Northern Kentucky University lab for study. She’s hoping to determine exactly how the worms, or possibly their bacteria, draw hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to live on.

“This is the only habitat for (these worms),” she says. “The next closest thing is diving two miles to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This is a world-class site.” To local skiers in Steamboat Springs, though, it’s still just a nondescript hazard marker along a nice slide down the hill.

Jennie Lay is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes near Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

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