FALLING WATERS, W.Va. – The sight of a school bus stopped on a neighborhood street before sunrise is not unusual, but Montgomery County school bus number 04007 is hardly a typical bus.
It is stopped on Viceroy Drive in this rural community in West Virginia at 4 a.m. – over an hour away from its destination in Rockville – and instead of taking children to school, it is taking school bus drivers to work in Montgomery County.
Almost 30 percent of the Montgomery County school bus operators and attendants live outside the county – primarily because the area is too expensive. For some, like Hobart Bennett Jr., the solution was in far off West Virginia.
“Unless you’re a doctor or lawyer, you can’t afford to live (in Montgomery County),” said Bennett, who moved to Martinsburg, about 10 minutes over winding narrow roads from Falling Waters, about a year ago.
When Bennett moved to Martinsburg, which is about 70 miles away from Rockville, he bought a home with four bedrooms and a two-car garage for $249,000. He said in Montgomery County, a similar home would cost close to $1 million.
People like Bennett were much on the minds of Maryland legislators last week. The Senate passed a controversial bill that would fund something called the geographic cost of education index – a formula that would give more state money to school systems in jurisdictions with a higher cost of living. The bill is scheduled to come up for vote in the House of Delegates next week.
Although the bill does not directly apply to employee salaries, 89 percent of the Montgomery County Public Schools budget goes toward salary and benefits so it is likely some of the proposed money would go the employees, said Brian Edwards, director of the public information office for the system.
Bennett said he is “paid well” at a $150 a day. If he worked where he lives for Berkeley County, he would make $83, he said. The higher pay and “better equipment” are two of the reasons he decided to keep working for Montgomery County after he moved, he said.
However, he said the hundreds of dollars he spent on gas each month made the long – and lonely – commute expensive. This past summer he and Syed Akhtar, a fellow Montgomery County bus driver who also lives in Martinsburg, heard about a shuttle that brought Montgomery County bus drivers from distant communities to a county school bus depot.
That shuttle no longer runs, but it gave Bennett and Akhtar the idea of starting one from their West Virginia homes. About 25 fellow bus drivers responded favorably to the suggestion, Bennett said. They then went to John Matthews, director of the Transportation Central Administration for the county schools, who approved the plan for a free shuttle because, he said, there is a “nationwide shortage” of bus drivers and the county wants to keep and attract employees.
“It’s a minimal cost in the grand scheme of things,” he added.
The shuttle begins in a hotel parking lot near Akhtar’s home where Bennett parks the bus every night. One driver normally gets on the bus at the Falling Waters stop and the bus slowly warms up on the way to stops in Sharpsburg and Frederick.
Bennett said about 14 drivers usually ride the shuttle each day, with most getting on at Frederick. On a recent Thursday, seven, including Bennett, rode the shuttle.
Akhtar is the first rider on the bus on this day. He rolled out of bed at 2:30 a.m. but rarely sips coffee from a mug roughly the size of a swollen pineapple. Instead, he spends most of his time chatting and laughing with Bennett, who is dressed only in a T-shirt and shorts despite the early morning cold as he navigates the big yellow school bus over the dark roads.
Fifteen months ago, Akhtar would have gotten out of bed several hours later than he did this morning. He used to live five minutes away from the school bus depot in Rockville, where he starts his work day. When he and his family – he lives with his wife and three children – moved to Martinsburg because of the cost of living, Akhtar said he sacrificed time and sleep to save money.
For Bennett, the “biggest trade-off” is family time. He doesn’t get home until about 6 p.m., so he often misses his 10-year-old son’s football games.
“The only time we have together all week is dinner,” Bennett said. Pictures of his son, Michael, in his sports uniforms, hang above his seat.
Despite commuting hardships, Bennett said his family loves West Virginia because “it’s more peaceful and relaxed” than Montgomery County.
But the inside of the bus is certainly not as peaceful as the countryside it passes. The drivers joke loudly; they swap stories about students as one passes a tin of mints around.
Bennett said he didn’t know the other drivers before he started the shuttle.
“We get to talking and it helps for the ride…helps pass the time,” Bennett added.
Terry Hardmon, who has lived in Martinsburg for three years, rode the shuttle for the first time Wednesday and agrees the company of her co-workers is a great benefit.
“Yesterday when I got home I wasn’t as tired,” she added. She had enough energy to make fish and tossed salad for dinner, she said, instead of her usual soup and sandwich.
Hardmon may be refreshed, but if Bennett’s coffee wears off, “someone else can pop in the seat.” “We can all pitch in,” he said.