LEWISTON — The City Council debated, but made no decision Tuesday night, about cutting busing for students attending Saint Dominic Academy’s elementary campus.

Saying St. Dom’s is a choice during a budget workshop, City Councilor John Butler proposed cutting parochial busing for Lewiston students who attend grades pre-K-6 campus off Lisbon Street. That would save $125,600 a year, or 7 cents per mill, in the city budget.

The proposal does not impact the Saint Dominic Academy in Auburn, which houses grades 7-12.  The city provides a shuttle for Lewiston students attending the Auburn school, but the school reimburses that cost.

After back-and-forth debate, some councilors indicated support for continuing busing, some were undecided, some favored the cut. The lack of consensus meant the issue stayed on the table.

Butler said he’s received angry emails from St. Dom’s supporters that slammed Lewiston public schools and public school parents. No other town around Lewiston provides transportation to private schools, he said.

There are Lewiston parents who send their students to Hebron Academy in Hebron or Waynflete School in Portland. They make their own transportation arrangements, and they are Lewiston taxpayers, Butler said.

With tough economic times, “we really have to do something. St. Dom’s Academy is a choice. We don’t have the budget for it.”

Mayor Laurent Gilbert spoke against the cut, saying Lewiston has provided busing to parochial students for 50 years, and it is the safest way of getting students to school. “It’s the safety of children, children of taxpayers of this city.”

In 2001 there was a referendum asking voters if they wanted to continue to provide busing to parochial students. Voters overwhelmingly said yes by a percentage of 84 or more percent, Gilbert said.

Councilor Mark Cayer said the clear outcome from the 2001 referendum “means something. That’s a strong message.”

But Councilor Stephen Morgan countered that the economics are different now than 2001. “I know what I face every time I step out the door pull up to gas pump.” He just spent $680 or heating oil, “and taxes are going to be due. … We’re talking about cutting sexual assault crisis, L/A Arts, we talk about cut, cut, cut right now, so everything’s on the table.”

Councilor Larry Poulin said the cut would mean extra costs to St. Dom’s parents. “Can they afford this extra cost? They’re not wealthy parents.” At what point does the costs of St. Dom’s become too much, and parents send their students to public schools, Poulin wondered. He said he fears putting the school at risk of closing, then the city would have to pay for those students’ transportation.

The council then discussed what would the cost, or gain, be to the city if it gained St. Dom’s Lewiston students. City Administrator Edward Barrett said Lewiston does get a significant reimbursement from the state for each public student, but it would be tough to estimate whether it would cost more or less.

Saint Dominic Academy parent Jeffrey Gosselin of Lewiston asked the council to continue to provide transportation.

The father of two said parents understand the difficult budget decisions, but “we do implore you to continue to provide school busing to students who attend St. Dom’s. It is about safe transportation to and from school.”

St. Dom’s is not Waynflete or Hebron, Gosselin said. “St. Dom’s is different. It is not the most affluent.”

And other communities — Augusta, Waterville, Winslow, Brunswick, Sanford, Saco, Biddeford and Rumford — provide busing for parochial students, Gosselin said. “Portland doesn’t, but I don’t want to be Portland.”

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