AUGUSTA — Lisa Goulette enrolled her freshman son at Cony High School assuming he could catch a bus to and from the city school, a 10-minute ride from their Chelsea home.
Instead, she and parents of about 70 other students — 50 from Chelsea and 20 more from Windsor and Whitefield — found out this month that their kids don’t have rides.
Earlier this year, the Augusta school district let a busing contract with Chelsea expire. The same thing happened last year with Windsor and Whitefield, but this time, Regional School Unit 12 officials said, they won’t foot the bill for busing to Cony.
Goulette, a state employee, said she and her husband, who also works full-time, have no way of getting their son to school without taking time off from work.
“It’s hard to tell your employer, ‘Gee, I need to use vacation time every single day to pick my child up at school because he has no way to get home,’ ” Goulette said.
In past years, the Augusta school district paid to bus students from Chelsea, Windsor and Whitefield.
After last year’s decision to no longer bus students from Windsor and Whitefield, RSU 12, comprising Alna, Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Westport Island, Whitefield, Windsor and Wiscasset, paid for busing to Augusta.
But there’s no plan to do that this year, said RSU 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle. The district pays for students’ tuition, but it isn’t required to transport students to high schools besides its own, Wiscasset High School.
James Anastasio, Augusta’s superintendent, said the district decided last year that it wouldn’t pay busing costs for students outside the district because the cost isn’t factored into the price the state allows the school to charge for tuition.
“We cannot afford to subsidize transportation for another school,” he said.
Last year, Cony could charge $7,139, far less than other public high schools attended by Chelsea students.
Gardiner charged $8,225, Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale charged $8,127 and Wiscasset charged the state average, $8,873. Busing is provided at those three schools.
Students from towns in Somerville-based RSU 12 can attend any high school because the towns were school-choice communities before the RSU formed in 2007, said Jim Rier, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.
High schools aren’t required to bus students from those towns, however, unless it’s included in a contract with the district or town.
A contract between Chelsea and the Augusta school district expired June 30.
Last year, district administrators found out they weren’t obligated to provide transportation to students in Windsor and Whitefield, so the district eliminated the service, Anastasio said.
But the message didn’t get to parents until buses didn’t show in the two towns at the start of school last year, so the RSU 12 school board decided to provide transportation for a year, said Tuttle, who started the job in July.
RSU 12 board Chairwoman Hilary Holm, a Whitefield resident, said the district won’t pay to bus students to other schools because there are so many other schools the students go to.
About two-thirds of students in RSU 12 attend high schools other than Wiscasset.
Besides Cony, many attend Hall-Dale, Erskine Academy in South China and Gardiner. At Erskine, families in RSU 12 pay $10 per week for busing.
Goulette said she is open to paying a fee, like at Erskine, but she says she should have been alerted before August. Freshmen start at Cony Wednesday and all other students start Thursday.
“Everybody left us high and dry,” Goulette said.
She said her son chose Cony High School because it provides an opportunity for him to study criminal justice.
It’s also much closer than Wiscasset High School, which is 18 miles from the Goulette home. Hall-Dale and Cony are approximately six and seven miles away, while Gardiner is about four miles away.
Chelsea Town Manager Scott Tilton said selectmen will discuss the busing issue at a meeting Wednesday.
The town already pays to transport students to and from central locations in Chelsea for buses sent by Erskine, Hall-Dale and Gardiner, and Tilton said the town won’t have enough left in its $25,000 transportation budget to bus students to and from Augusta.
The bus service has said the town could pay $8,750 to cover the additional expenses of the buses from Cony High School continuing on the Chelsea, Tilton said.
But, he said, paying for it could lead to other schools dropping bus service to Chelsea, leaving the town on the hook for all its students.
“There’s nothing to say Gardiner couldn’t do the same thing or Hall-Dale couldn’t do the same thing,” Tilton said.
Another complication is that Wiscasset High School is on the verge of withdrawing from the school district. The Department of Education has signed off on the proposal, and residents will vote Nov. 5 on whether to officially withdraw in July 2014.
Tuttle said the withdrawal agreement ensures schools from the towns in the district will still be able to attend Wiscasset, and the district would continue to provide transportation.
Holm agreed, saying the board has a committee looking at other high schools to allow students to transfer to.
“I think what it does point out is having a district where two-thirds of the students go to other high schools puts us in a precarious position because high schools can choose how they serve our students,” Holm said.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663