AUBURN — The vote was unanimous. Northeast Charter will take over the task of driving kids to and from Auburn schools.
"It's sad," said Debra Therriault, a bus driver for 13 years. "I feel like I could cry, only I'm too mad."
"I feel like I'm out of a job," said Bonnie Hersey, who drives bus No. 23 in East Auburn. "I think I need to clean all the personal stuff out of my bus."
After the School Committee voted, there was an air of resignation among the half-dozen drivers who hoped the vote would go the other way. They were angry and frustrated and worried about the future, sure.
But mostly it was resignation; they went into the meeting reasonably sure how it was going to turn out.
"It's all too political," said Joe Short, who's been driving for 18 years. "It's just another gimmick."
A gimmick that will save Auburn taxpayers $300,000 in the first year, according to the School Committee. And anyway, the people of Northeast Charter say all those bus drivers could keep their jobs.
Possibly. If they fill out applications, pass a physical and survive background checks, as well as checks for drug and alcohol use.
"It's just not fair," said Hersey, inside Auburn Hall and outside, after the vote.
The bus drivers, veterans of hauling kids to and from school, feel that if they want to keep their jobs, they basically have to start over. And even if they keep their jobs, just about all of them would lose their insurance.
There are no guarantees either way. Northeast Charter owner Scott Riccio, asked repeatedly whether the drivers would be welcomed into his company, declined to make promises. Sure, he'd welcome them, he said. As long as everything checks out.
He made no apologies for that stance.
"You're expecting me to provide the best possible drivers to transport the children," he told the committee.
Tasked with that, Riccio said he has rigid guidelines in place when it comes to hiring people to drive buses. It includes the physical, the background checks, an incentive program and a 90-day review period.
"It's just good business practice," he said. "And it's in the best interest of the children."
The meeting was at times feisty, although it never quite rose to the level of rowdy. While Riccio delivered his presentation, the bus drivers leaned forward in their chairs, shaking their heads, whispering back and forth. A few tried to respond to Riccio's assertions but were quickly silenced by committee Chairman Thomas Kendall until it was their turn to speak.
"We shouldn't have to be wondering whether we're going to have jobs," said Hersey, when her turn came around.
"We want to keep our jobs," Therriault said. "You can save money without outsourcing us."
The problem is, they can't. Kendall said the committee met with the drivers' union and explored other ways to save the taxpayers money. Those efforts fell short.
"That is the reason we're here tonight," Kendall said.
The matter was discussed for an hour before it was time to vote. Before that happened, committee member Bonnie Hayes repeatedly tried to get Riccio to commit to bringing back the drivers. He would not.
Committee member Laurie Tannenbaum argued that Riccio should not expect to promise anyone a job.
"He has the final decision," she said. "That's the way the business world works."
Maybe so, but for the drivers, the vote still stung. After it became final, they shuffled out of Auburn Hall, disappointed but not surprised. They milled around in the gloom of the parking garage talking about what came next. A few said they would apply for a position with Northeast Charter.
Therriault, who used to drive for Riccio, said her opposition to the move wasn't personal. She was more upset with the School Committee than with him.
"They've told us so many stories," she said. "Back and forth so many times, we don't know what to believe anymore."
Some suggested there were hard feelings, though. And those feelings are likely to linger.
"He may be in for a surprise," Short said. "There will be a lot of drivers who won't go drive for him."
Northeast Charter and Tour Co. on Goddard Road in Lewiston currently runs 60 buses. The company has been around since 1999. The founder of the company, Riccio says he is prepared in case some or many of the drivers don't wish to come back.
"We'll have to go from another driver pool," he told the committee. "Which is an easy thing for us to do."
The company provides transportation for the Portland Sea Dogs and used to haul around hockey players with the Maineiacs. They also provide transportation services for casino trips, business outings and wedding parties.
And they drive children in other Maine towns. Since December, Northeast Charter has been providing transportation for some of Auburn's special needs students.