By 6:30 a.m. yesterday, Molly Regennitter was late for her commute and had forgotten her flashlight.
As a student at Glenwood Middle School, the 11-year-old is supposed to be at the bus stop at 6:25 a.m. -- 10 minutes before her bus is scheduled to arrive after picking up other children even earlier.
One hour and 20 minutes later, her first class began at a school that is a 15-minute drive from her Mount Airy home.
"It's scary because you're out there in the dark," Molly said as she headed down her long driveway toward her bus stop on Route 144 near Mount Airy. "Whenever you see a car going by, you think, 'Is that person going to hurt me?' "
West county parents are organizing to seek relief for Molly and other middle school students who live at the beginning of bus routes that take up to 55 minutes and force them to wait in darkness through the winter months.
They will get some temporary relief from the darkness next week with the resumption of Eastern Standard Time, but as the mornings get colder, the darkness will return.
But darkness isn't the only problem. Parents also wonder why their children must ride so long to arrive at a school that begins classes at 7:45 a.m.
The problem, very simply, is money, said school system Transportation Director Glenn Johnson.
The school board reduced the transportation budget for this school year by $360,000. The cut forced the system to contract for 11 fewer buses than last year, instead of adding about six needed to cope with increased needs, which included the opening of two new schools.
Molly's father, John Regennitter, wonders if part of the $1.4 million County Executive Charles I. Ecker is seeking to restore to the school system's operating budget could be used to expand bus service.
But that is highly unlikely because the allotment, if it is approved by the County Council next month, is already earmarked for such things as new textbooks, staff and educational equipment, said David S. White, the school system's budget officer.
Some parents of Glenwood Middle students have chosen to drive their children rather than allow them to ride the bus so early or for so long.
Debbie Furlough said it takes her about eight minutes to drive her 7th- and 8th-graders, Dave, 11, and Nancy, 13, from their home in Glenelg to the school. Otherwise, they would have to leave home about 45 minutes before school started, she said.
"They did it one day, and from that day on, I started driving," she said.
One of the problems, Ms. Furlough said, is that the buses seem to use circuitous routes that she and other parents have had trouble making sense of.
"Kids have tried to figure out how they can get off the bus at another stop and cut through back yards to get home earlier," she said.
But Mr. Johnson said the schools' transportation department is constantly reviewing routes to make them more efficient, and reorganizing routes would not solve the problem.
"You end up pleasing somebody and upsetting others. You just create another group of parents that are unhappy," he said, adding that without more buses, some children will have long, early trips.
"If we see a way to improve the situation, we're the first ones to do it," Mr. Johnson said.
Sheila Nixon, a member of the executive board of Glenwood Middle's Parent Teacher Student Association, said the group was able to defeat a school board proposal to open the school early.
When the proposal came up a second time, many parents were taken by surprise and didn't learn about it until it had been approved, she said.
Ms. Nixon said she must stay with her sixth-grader, Barrett, at the bus stop because it can't be seen down her half-mile driveway.
The long bus trips have contributed to disciplinary problems, as well, parents say. School officials once had to keep the bus at school because of unruly children, but Ms. Nixon said it did not surprise her.
"It's wall-to-wall kids, two and three to every seat," she said. "I don't know how they can expect them to be good."