SABATTUS — Regional School Unit 4 is moving ahead with plans to privatize busing next fall.
In a very narrow decision Wednesday night, after hearing from dozens of parents mostly upset at the prospect, the school board voted in favor of privatized busing for K-12 students. It had received one response in a request for bids, from Northeast Charter of Lewiston. That contract would save the district an estimated $233,000 a year, according to Superintendent James Hodgkin.
It now becomes part of the district budget, to be put to a referendum in June, where residents in Litchfield, Wales and Sabattus could still stall the idea.
Hodgkin said he came into the office Thursday morning to angry emails. He had recommended the school board postpone a decision for a year.
"As superintendent, I get to be the lightning rod," he said.
With one member missing, the board vote tied at 4-4. Weighted by population, it came out 462 in favor, 428 opposed.
The issue of privatizing the bus route had already had three meetings. About 200 people showed up to add their voice to the discussion Wednesday night.
"I think a fair number of them felt it was happening too quickly," Hodgkin said.
Of concern: The 22 full- and part-time bus drivers being put out of work. Northeast Charter would offer them their old jobs at the same wage, he said, but without benefits. It's unclear how many would accept the new positions.
"They know the kids," he said. "The community sees them as more than just bus drivers. They have a long-standing relationship with a lot of the students, they transported a lot of their parents."
All but one of the drivers lives in the district.
The Northeast Charter bid, roughly $480,000 a year for three years with an option of adding two more, won't be formally accepted until school board members approve the next school budget at the board's April 25 meeting, according to Hodgkin. Even under that bid, the school would still supply buses and fuel.
"The savings to us is not paying the wages, the benefits, little things that add up to a lot," he said. Though, "we're not going to realize the whole $233,000 savings." Some funds would be used for other areas, like restoring a social studies teacher at the high school. Money would also go to severance packages for the drivers.
Northeast Charter already serves schools in Winthrop and Lincolnville. Hodgkin didn't believe bus routes would change.
"I think it's far from over," he said. "I'm going to be very interested to see how the community reacts and how the board responds to the community displeasure."
Residents could turn down next year's budget because of it, Hodgkin said. "In emailing my board this morning, I said that's a very legitimate concern for me."