"You'd be hard-pressed to find too many kids who don't love" the program, said Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, who, along with Commission President Doug Howard, insists the county — now running a budget surplus of about $10 million — can avoid the cuts Guthrie is warning about.

Both Shoemaker and Howard say the board of commissioners should stick to a five-year plan it approved last year, which would keep school funding as it is.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild argues there's been too little attention paid to the long view. With the state shifting more teacher pension costs to the counties, and with Carroll schools seeing a decline in enrollment — which in turn reduces state aid — he insists there's a bigger budget problem that is not being addressed.

The school board is expected to propose an operating budget Wednesday, and Guthrie said the request will include funding to keep Outdoor School in operation.

The commissioners won't vote on the overall county budget until May — after public hearings and deliberations — but they've been discussing for months the impact of falling school enrollments, whether the system should consider closing school buildings and how much money to spend on education.

As they debate the system's fiscal health, hundreds of children have continued taking stock of environmental health at Hashawha.

On a cold morning last week, Collin Angell — one of five teachers in the program — gathered his group of 14 students around a computer display and several charts to prepare for their day investigating the Bear Branch.

The lesson on stream ecology was typical of what Heacock calls the school's "environmental issue investigation" approach, combining classroom and field work. Students delve into a question about the environment, figure out how to answer it, then determine what might be done to improve what humans have fouled up.

The question in stream ecology is straightforward: how to judge the health of a waterway? Using his oversized monitor and a series of charts in the classroom and down at the stream, Angell talked about evidence that could be used to answer that question.

Wearing high rubber boots supplied by the school, students waded into the chilly stream up to their ankles to consider water clarity, flow, temperature, erosion of the banks and the condition of the stream bottom. They were then asked to grab nets and buckets to take samples to check for bugs and fish.

The students learn certain bugs and fish are more helpful than others in judging water quality, as some species are more sensitive to pollution. The presence of more of those pollution-sensitive ones suggests a healthier stream.

Once inside the "wetlands building," where the students sift through samples, Nathan Grella and Donovan Baldwin found their bucket of leaves and rocks contained signs of good news about Bear Branch. Donovan found a brown, wormy thing about the size of a rice grain that turned out to be caddisfly larva, listed as "very pollution sensitive" on the chart.

Nathan found something just a bit larger, looking almost like a miniature grasshopper. The mayfly nymph was also listed as "very pollution sensitive."

Other students found two fish considered "somewhat pollution tolerant": the tessellated darter and the Blue Ridge sculpin. Alas, no brook trout, a "sensitive" species not found in these waters since the 1940s, said Angell.

In a group discussion, the students talked about their observations and pronounced the stream "somewhat healthy" — and went on to design projects that could improve it.

Near the end of a week in which they called for owls in the night and heard none calling back, but saw beavers on a pond, raptors in their cages and a couple of shooting stars, the students were learning the power of observation and action.

Donovan pointed to an indentation in the cold, blackish stone, where he found the caddisfly larva.

"A lot of stuff is hiding in stuff," he said. "You can't find it without looking at it."


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