MADISON — In the 34 years that Pat Webb has been a bus driver in the school district, she’s gotten to know just about all the students who ride with her. She’s also gotten to know their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

When a child brings in a note saying to drop her off at Grammy’s house, Webb said, she knows exactly where Grammy lives even though no one gave her an address.

Children run up to her in the store, calling her “Pat the bus driver.”

“I don’t have a last name. It’s bus driver,” she said.

Webb could make more money as a commercial truck driver, but she loves her job, she said. “What I haul for cargo is the most precious thing on the face of the earth.”

People gathered Saturday morning at the American Legion to air their concerns about the possibility of School Administrative District 59 cutting the positions of 25 custodians and bus drivers and hiring cheaper, contracted labor in their place.

Officials say the district is facing severe losses in revenue and is examining laying off the unionized workers to cut costs. The ultimate decision would be made by the school board.

But the custodians and bus drivers who gathered on Saturday said the decision shouldn’t be just about money.

“It’s not just a job to us. These are our kids,” said Suzanne Bassett, who has been a custodian for 13 years and is vice president for the Education Support Professionals portion of the Madison Area Education Association. “We’ve had them. We’ve had their parents.”

Sherry Cress has been a bus driver in the district for 18 years and said employees do more than what’s mandated in their contracts. If she drives a student to school and then learns that student is sick and needs to go home, she takes them if their parents are working, she said.

Mike Crane, of Solon, is also a bus driver and said one day he bought breakfast for a hungry student with no food at home.

As a foster parent, Crane has also offered to house a student who didn’t have a place to live. Though that student ultimately found other housing, the two are still in touch.

“Where does money fit in there?” Crane said.

Shawn Bean, of Madison, came to the meeting to support his fellow union workers. Though he’s a member of the United Steelworkers Local Union 9, as an employee of Sappi Fine Paper, he said, “If you pick a fight with one union, you pick a fight with all the unions.”

Rose Mahoney, from the Maine Education Association, said the local union has filed a grievance with the district, alleging that the district violated the contract’s rules for how to pursue subcontractors.

Troy Emery, chairman of the school board, said in an interview that the district has an obligation to search for ways to save taxpayers money.

“It’s pretty cut and dry, I think. We are looking to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers. If we can save money by subcontracting out the custodians and bus drivers, then we owe it to the taxpayers to look at subcontracting,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we have to look at everything every year. We’ve had nothing but cutbacks from the state. If we can find ways to bring the budget in line without affecting children and without affecting programs for children, that’s what we need to look at first.”

A subcommittee composed of district officials and union members is currently reviewing six bids. The school board’s next meeting is at 7 p.m., Monday, Dec. 19, though it’s not yet known whether members will vote then.

Emery, of Madison, said it will be a difficult decision. “We understand that these people have worked for the district for a long time. We understand the human aspect of it. But we have to be fiscally responsible, and we will be.”

Bruce Thebarge, a school board member from Madison, emphasized that the review process is in the early stages, and the board is doing its job by examining ways to save money.

“We couldn’t be responsible in our jobs if we didn’t look at every avenue in terms of cost savings,” he said. Also, if the district hired contractors, they would give the laid-off workers preference, he said.

“Any time we have to make a cut, it is tough. It isn’t something we take lightly — because these are our friends, our neighbors, our taxpayers also,” he said, adding that people should attend board meetings in order to learn more and share their opinion.

Karen Corson, vice chairman from Athens, also said that people are not necessarily losing their jobs if workers are rehired by the new company.

“I don’t look at it as trying to take away anyone’s job. I look at it as trying to save the district money,” she said. “At the end of the day it is about survival and keeping our schools functioning at the highest capacity that our dollar can allow.”

The bids are not public, so it’s not yet known whether current custodians and bus drivers would have their pay and benefits reduced. But the employees suspect they will.

Robin Wilkey has been a custodian in the district for 23 years and said bus drivers and custodians have single subscriber health insurance. In order to get family coverage, she pays $411 every two weeks. It’s hard enough to make ends meet, she said.

“I don’t think we make an exorbitant amount for what we do. We do more than clean toilets,” Wilkey said.

In April, the Brewer School Committee voted to hire ServiceMaster to clean the new Brewer Community School. The cleaning contract eliminated the need for six of 12 custodians and was projected to save about $100,000 annually, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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