To say that nearly a decade of declining enrollment and five consecutive years of budget cuts have been a challenge for Nevada County's public schools and their administrators is putting it mildly.
In 2000-01, there were 12,997 students enrolled in 50 schools in western Nevada County, according to the county Superintendent of Schools Office.
But today, in the 2011-12 school year, just 11,050 students are enrolled countywide in 45 schools, representing a 15 percent reduction in enrollment in that span.
And it appears the trend isn't changing anytime soon, school officials say.
"We haven't been presented any evidence that the declining enrollment will turn around," said Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen. "I think schools will continue to struggle with that."
Since 2007, $6.2 billion in education allocations have been slashed from the California's general fund.
That decline in revenue equates to a $1,197 reduction in per pupil spending - or about 15 teachers per school of 1,000 students - according to EdSource.org, which tracks education in California.
"We've been dealing with declining enrollment for over 10 years in this county," Hermansen said. "It isn't as drastic as the budget cuts. It's more of a gradual trend. It's something you can get a handle on and plan for.
"Budget cuts are a totally different animal."
In rural Nevada County, proposed cuts to transportation funding would have a much more devastating effect than in urban districts, Hermansen said. Shortening routes, or elimination of routes altogether, is possible in the coming year, she said.
"None of those are good solutions because our goal is to get the kids to school," Hermansen said.
Programs are also susceptible - hardly any schools in Nevada County can afford to offer programs such as shop class.
And the Nevada Joint Union High School District has its agriculture and FFA departments slated for reductions, along with libraries.
But one of the most visible consequences of the crisis is teacher layoffs.
Uncertainty over Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative slated for the November ballot means districts have to plan as though the measure will fail and their funding will be further reduced.
In March, Nevada Joint Union High School District delivered 40 pink slips to educators and Nevada City Elementary School District delivered 20.
With fewer teachers, class sizes increase.
"We've been in cuts for so many years now that there really isn't anything left to cut," Hermansen said. "Any of the extras have been gone for a long time."
With smaller staffs, educators are , like John Baggett who serves as principal of both Lyman Gilmore and Margaret Scotten schools in Grass Valley.
The most drastic result of the financial realities districts face are school closures.
There are 45 schools in the county, five fewer than in 2001.
After 50 years of serving the south county, Pleasant Ridge Elementary was closed in 2010.
Nevada City Elementary was closed in 2010, after 74 years of operation, and its students were folded into Gold Run, which itself closed the following year and those students have since been consolidated into Deer Creek Elementary.
In Grass Valley, Bell Hill Elementary closed in 2005 and its district just in late January, allocating the revered Hennessy School campus to the district's own charter school - its only school with increasing enrollment.
While consolidation within districts has been seen in the last couple years in Nevada County, unification of districts has not.
But that conversation has begun and no longer seems such a taboo subject, as some superintendents are .
In this special report, The Union examines arguments for and against consolidation, how schools are making tough decisions within their districts, a school that is seeing and they are offering in hopes of attracting students in order to survive a changing landscape in local education.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email email@example.com or call (530) 477-4236.