UNITY — Regional School Unit 3 School Board directors will vote Monday whether to bus kindergartners through seniors together in a effort to save money.

Superintendent Heather Perry projected the change from the current double run bus system that carries middle and high school students separately from elementary students would save the sprawling 11-town district about $140,000 annually.

Perry said financial times are tough and directors are seeking to find savings where possible.

She said the school district is losing a combined $750,000 from state and federal funding and the price tag to retain staff and educational programs will increase to $19.9 million in 2012-13, up from $19.2 million.

A single bus run isn’t new to the district.

Until 1988, the district used a single bus run throughout its communities, which now comprise Brooks, Freedom, Jackson, Knox, Liberty, Monroe, Montville, Thorndike, Troy, Unity and Waldo.

Since 1988, the 440-square-mile district has used a double bus run. The middle and high school students are picked up first for school and some board buses at 5:45 a.m. for classes that start at 7:30 a.m.

After drivers drop off the older students at the Mount View school complex in Thorndike, the drivers return to many of the same roads for elementary students.

Perry said one reason the district switched to a double bus run was that educators sought to limit the time elementary students rode buses to no more than 60 minutes one way.

Today, though, Perry said there are two elementary bus routes on which students ride 78 minutes one way.

The 18 full-time bus drivers work about 35 hours weekly transporting 674 elementary students and 786 middle and high school students to and from school more than 490,000 miles annually, she said.

A single bus run would eliminate about 13 hours a week per driver and 70,000 miles annually, saving about $94,500 annually for drivers and $35,000 in fuel, she said.

Perry said those figures are based on buses getting 8 miles per gallon and $4 per gallon diesel fuel costs.

Another $10,000 in savings would come from bus maintenance, she said.

The superintendent said a single bus run might also provide educational benefits.

A single bus run would allow all the district schools to start at 8 a.m., giving older students a chance to sleep later.

“Research is very clear on the fact that adolescents actually require more sleep that any other age group,” Perry wrote in her report. “One possible positive outgrowth of the proposed single bus run would be to delay the start times for our middle school and high school and hence more closely align with current brain research for adolescents.”

With the change to a single bus run, elementary schools would add an hour of instruction to the day, with classes starting at 8 a.m., rather than 9 a.m.

Some of the concerns expressed at a Feb. 8 public forum included bus rides being even longer than they are now, as well as younger children being exposed to bullying, vulgar language and drugs.

With a single bus run, Perry said two elementary bus routes would last 80 minutes and 14 middle and high school bus routes would be 80 minutes.

She said seating could be structured so young students sit in the front and older students sit in the back. Bus drivers would undergo additional training and bus monitors could be added, she said.

A number of districts in Maine use a single run system, Perry said, including Regional School Unit 18 in Oakland and School Administrative District 53 in Pittsfield.

At the suggestion of a bus driver, Freedom School Board Director Kathy Cunningham rode along during a morning and afternoon route in late February.

She said on Monday she would cast her vote to keep the double bus run.

“One of the key issues, for me, if the return to the single bus run does pass, is the likely possibility that the drivers we now have will need to look elsewhere for work, as their benefits will probably disappear,” Cunningham said.

Earlier this school year, the board rejected another proposal to save money by closing a school.

Directors in October rejected closing Monroe Elementary School, where 62 students in grades pre-kindergarten through five attend class. The move would have saved about $211,000.

The bus run vote is scheduled for the board’s meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at Unity Elementary School on School Street.

Perry said residents are invited to attend, listen and voice opinions. Her report about the bus run is available at www.msad3.org/sad3.

Beth Staples — 861-9252

[email protected]