FARMNGTON — A proposal to hire a private transportation company as a way to save money in the 2011-12 Mt. Blue Regional School District budget was slammed during a public comment session at a school board meeting Thursday.

“We as a society have to consider (what happens) when we take benefits away from people and marginalize them … for $190,000,” Farmington resident Jarrod Platt said. “It would be reprehensible.”

“I strongly oppose going to a contracted bus service,” he said. “I strongly urge you to let us pay a little more and keep these people on with benefits.”

The proposed Regional School Unit 9 budget of $25.4 million budget for 2011-12, up 15 percent over the current year, does not include contracting out transportation or custodial services. The board is seeking bids on both services after the suggestions were made by the public at earlier budget community meetings.

As the budget review process moves toward the June 1 referendum, the options could be included rather than cut further into educational programs.

The savings over a three-year contract could be about $327,500 if the district went with the low bidder, Northeast Charter, the nation’s largest student transportation service.

A second bid submitted by First Student, of Lewiston, would save the district $41,350 over three years. The difference between the bids averaged about $95,390 a year. The district budgets about $1.9 million a year for transportation under the current system.

The savings discussed Thursday differed from Director of Support Services David Leavitt’s initial presentation on Tuesday due to a miscalculation of the lease payments.

Changing to a private contractor would mean the district’s current 23 bus drivers, three mechanics and two car drivers would be laid off. While many may be rehired by the outside company, most of the jobs would be part time without benefits. A number of drivers now work as custodians to bring their hours up to full time and the board is also looking at privatizing that service.

Parent Brenda Burnell thanked the drivers for protecting the safety and well-being of the community’s children in a very stressful job.

“We rely on these professionals to take care of our kids. This is not the place to save money and have the same quality as we have now,” she said.

Veteran driver Bruce Rollins said the possibility of losing their jobs and insurance has weighed heavily on employees all year and has been affecting morale.

“I am very concerned that we built an experienced, trained, quality, stable team and could throw it all away,” he said. “I’ve been training other drivers and I know experience is not learned overnight.”

He suggested some cost-savings ideas: do away with drivers’ uniforms; combine the Cushing Elementary School and Academy Hill School in Wilton; eliminate freshmen football and basketball; cut down on the number of trips; and decrease sick days from 15 down to 10 or 12.

Employee Lee Dalrymple, representing the support staff union, asked the board to consider the risk of using a subcontractor and of the potential problems over accountability.

He also asked about the cost and logistics in the event of an emergency when students would have to be bused home or off campus. The contractor’s part-time drivers may not be available as the drivers are now, he said.

“The bus drivers are part of our community,” he said. “These are difficult budget times but do we want to trust contract drivers to transport our children? What we have now is not broken so don’t fix it.”

“There is a significant savings here,” board Chairman Mark Prentiss said. “Our job is to educate students and this is a hard decision.”

Several directors spoke about the value of the drivers and the personal relationships they develop with their riders. Director Bob Flick of Farmington has been an outspoken opponent of contracting out the service because it would require such extensive layoffs.

“It is heart-rendering,” he said.

On Tuesday, Leavitt will present the board with the bids for contracting out custodial services. The meeting is set for 7 p.m. in the Mt. Blue Middle School cafeteria.

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