WALES — A private contractor will run the school buses in Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales next year.

An attempt to keep the busing and the drivers in-house failed within five minutes of the start of Wednesday night’s special school board meeting.

The school board vote at Oak Hill High School was 5-4 against rescinding an earlier vote. The vote is weighted by each town’s population.

Those in favor of contracting were Chairman Robert Gayton Jr., Gregoire Provost and Rebecca Shedd, of Sabattus; and Robert English and Amy Morissette, of Wales.

Board members who wanted to keep the bus driving in-house for at least another year, as the superintendent proposed, were Vicki Russell, Joan Thomas and Scott Weeks, all of Litchfield; and Will Fessenden, of Sabattus.

The school committee of Regional School Unit 4 had been paring its proposed budget over the past few weeks, and contracting out the busing is expected to save about $233,000, minus the cost of a severance package for the 22 bus drivers.

However, Betty Jo Wade, a 29-year bus driver for the district, disputed that figure, reading from a prepared statement almost immediately after the vote.

She questioned the language as contained in a contract proposal from the lone bidder, NorthEast Charter & Tour Co., of Lewiston.

“The bid is for 270,000 miles and 175 school days,” said Wade, of Litchfield. “Our buses operate more than 175 days, because they start in late August, include vacation weekends and sometimes more than three buses on weekend.”

She said the private company — which would use the district-owned buses — would charge $2.15 per mile and $29 an hour for overage, adding that the deal lacked incentive to conserve on mileage.

The nine board members listened but took no other action on the issue.

School board member Scott Weeks also questioned the savings factor. “If we don’t go with Northeast Charter, that’s not an accurate number,” he said.

Larry Nadeau, of Litchfield, had a similar concern.

“The bid you got, as Betty Jo pointed out, is not a realistic figure,” Nadeau said. “How can you assume anyone else will bid?”

The contract has yet to be awarded.

Once the board’s position in favor of outsourcing the bus runs was clarified, about 30 people who had attended specifically for that issue walked out of the auditorium.

Later, Dennis Tilton, of Litchfield, told the board it’s been his privilege to drive a school bus and to mentor the children for 15 years.

“I cannot stay on if you privatize, because I will not be a taxi driver,” he said.

While the bus company has said all the current drivers will be able to apply for the jobs, they will lose the benefits they have now under their contract with the school.

Later the board voted 6-3 to approve a budget of $17.6 million, which is 2.1 percent higher than the current year’s figure, and sent it out for a public vote on June 6. The budget restores a social studies teaching post that had been cut.

Fessenden, Thomas and Weeks voted against the final budget figure.

“I think it’s too low,” Fessenden said afterward. “It doesn’t address needed investment, and it doesn’t dedicate enough funds to educating our children. In difficult economic times, the way to move forward and create better times is to educate our children and have a better-educated work force.”

That budget figure means Litchfield will pay 7.46 percent more to support the schools next year; Sabattus will pay 3.59 percent more; and Wales residents will pay 5.21 percent more.

While several audience members — including Larry Nadeau, Claire Labbe and Jeff Stevens and Libby Rodrigue, all of Litchfield — urged the board to include money for capital improvements in the budget, the board declined.

Superintendent Jim Hodgkin said the district will get direction from the public in a nonbinding referendum as to whether to invest in current buildings or erect an addition, and then take action as a board.

The options are listed on the district’s website: “to get a bond for $1.8 million to address the projects on the capital improvement list or get a bond for approximately $6.3 million to build an addition on to one of our schools to create a new PK-2 school and close both the Sabattus Primary School and the Libby Tozier School.”

At the meeting, Hodgkin said, “I don’t support putting money in there for capital improvements.”

Provost expressed concern about the property tax burden a higher budget would place on residents.

“There are 10,000 people that haven’t shown up that are out there in the community,” he said. “We have to think of the poor, the unemployed and retired people.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

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