FARMINGTON — During budget brainstorming sessions this winter with the community, staff and teachers, the Mt. Blue Regional School District board heard dozens of ideas on where cuts might be made this coming year.

There was one recurring theme: switch to a single-bus run from the current two-tier service.

But on Tuesday, directors learned that under a one-run system students would be on buses longer, arrive at school up to an hour before classes started and would remain later in the day. Also, high school and elementary students would be riding on the same buses.

A public discussion, with more specific figures on costs and savings, will be held at the March 22 board meeting at 7 p.m. at Mt. Blue Middle School.

David Leavitt, director of support services, presented a preliminary report to the board on how a single-tier bus service would work and said savings might be found but at the cost of jobs.

Currently, the longest bus runs are in remote parts of Weld and have children riding for about an hour one way, Leavitt said.

He found that with a single-run system with all six schools operating from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., all drivers would see their work day reduced to about 4.5 hours a day, effectively eliminating their health benefits.

“Most drivers now make multiple runs and operate between six and seven hours per day. They complete their work day with custodial work,” he said.

Balancing the estimated $75,000 savings in fuel would be an additional cost of about $11,000 needed to hire seven new part-time drivers.

Money would also be needed to hire six extra-duty monitors to help younger children on and off the buses, and the hours of education technicians assigned to special education students would have to be extended, he said.

Board members said any decision on a single-bus run should rest with the community. But they voiced concerns about children riding on buses for up to an hour and a half a day and any proposal that picks one group of employees to bear the brunt of budget cuts.

“We are looking for substantial savings, but are we going to find that on the back of bus drivers?” Director Betsey Hyde of Temple asked. “I don’t know if this would be worth it and cost effective.”

Director Iris Silverstein, a pediatrician, said she wants to know how many children would be getting picked up at 6 or 6:30 a.m. and not getting back home until 4 p.m., spending three hours a day on a bus and sitting in school for an extra hour and a half.

“The number of kids affected is a big deal,” she said.

“I can’t see doing it,” Weld Director Paul Drouin said. “We won’t save enough money. You can’t just think about the dollars.”

The board asked about contracting for bus service, but Superintendent Michael Cormier said that has been investigated and the cost savings were not substantial.

Bus driver Andy Leavitt, in the audience, said cutting drivers’ hours will force them to look for other work.

“Where will you find drivers?” he said. “These are an elite group of people who are handpicked to take care of kids.”

Other points Leavitt made:

* There are now 23 buses; a single-run service requires 29.

* Now, buses cover 2,500 miles a day and burn 440 gallons of diesel. The single-run service would be 1,700 miles.

* Seven more part-time drivers would be needed at a cost of $11,000, and more duty monitors hired.

* Four more buses would be needed at a time when reimbursements from the Department of Education have been cut.

* The district’s spare bus fleet would have to be put on the road, or else field trips and sports schedules changed so those buses would be available for regular runs.

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