Regional School Unit 4 once again is debating privatized busing, and the school board could vote on it as soon as Wednesday.
A school board committee split its vote on whether to recommend that the full board approve a contract with Northeast Charter and Tour Co. that is projected to save the school district up to $195,000 next year.
Voters in the district, which consists of Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales, rejected contracting for busing when the idea was floated in a nonbinding referendum in 2012, but Superintendent James Hodgkin said school unit officials received encouragement from residents to revisit the issue.
“We had a nonbinding vote, and people feel like the board is not listening to the public; but members of the public were pretty adamant with me and members of the board that they felt they were duped before,” he said.
Because RSU 4 did not take a position on the referendum, while the drivers’ union campaigned hard against privatization, people didn’t realize until later the savings it could produce, Hodgkin said.
In addition, three school board members who have joined the board since then favor privatized busing, Hodgkin said.
Following a committee meeting this week, school board members Bob English, of Wales, and Nancy Provost, of Sabattus, recommended the school board approve Northeast’s bid, while Scott Weeks of Litchfield opposed it.
Bus driver Nicole Labbe-Gervais, who lives in Litchfield, said she understands that school unit officials want to avoid a burdensome tax increase for district residents; but by privatizing busing, they’d be laying off several of those residents, she said. A majority of RSU 4’s 15 bus drivers live in the district, she said.
“They’re part of the community. The kids see these people, not just on the school bus,” Labbe-Gervais said. “It’s not a stranger coming in to drive their school bus.”
The school unit requested proposals in January for a busing contract. Northeast, which also provides busing for the Auburn and Winthrop school districts, was the only bidder.
Hodgkin said other companies inquired but decided not to bid because the school district would maintain ownership of its buses. That would protect the district in case officials later want to discontinue the contract, but it does not fit the business model of some charter bus companies.
Northeast offered terms for one to three years. The cost in the first year would be $528,000, and it would increase by 1.5 percent in each of the following two years.
If the school board accepts the bid, the school unit would enter negotiations with the union about severance for the bus drivers. Net savings for the school district would be an estimated $195,000 minus the cost of the severance.
Hodgkin said Northeast officials have told him they’d like to hire as many laid-off RSU 4 drivers as possible, and they could end up working more hours without being limited to the school year.
Labbe-Gervais said that’s no guarantee, and even if hired by Northeast, the drivers might not qualify for benefits, which they receive from the school district even while working less than full time.
The drivers’ biggest concern, however, is the children who ride the buses, Labbe-Gervais said. She has two children of her own in RSU 4, and another graduated last year.
“We live here, we work here, and a lot of us are involved in other ways than just picking those kids up,” she said. “I just think that the drivers have the town’s children and the townspeople’s best interests at heart.”