LEWISTON — The decision about whether the city should continue to pay to bus parochial school students is all about safety, according to Mayor Larry Gilbert and a handful of parents in City Hall on Thursday night.

“It’s the safest form of transportation for children to go to school,” Gilbert said during a joint City Council workshop with the Lewiston School Committee. “It’s always been a public safety issue and nothing has changed.”

But at least two city councilors said it’s a matter of money as much as safety.

“You look at our budget and say how many people will we have to lay off,” Councilor John Butler said. “Every group is going to come to us, and we’re going to have to tell them we have to cut from everyone. And that means everyone.”

Butler is proposing reducing the number of buses the city pays to deliver kindergarten-to-sixth- grade students to the middle school at St. Dominic’s  Academy, the former Trinity Catholic School.

The students are picked up alongside Lewiston’s public school students and the practice costs the city $125,600 for three full-time buses. Butler said the current plan is to keep two of the buses in the city’s budget, saving the city $42,000.

The city also provides a shuttle for students at St. Dominic High School on Gracelawn Road in Auburn, but the school reimburses the city for costs associated with that shuttle — about $140 per month.

Councilors are scheduled to settle the matter when they vote on the city’s budget on May 17.

Lewiston has paid for some part of the parochial school expenses for years. It began reducing that in 2009-10 when councilors decided they would no longer pay for textbooks and testing for private school students.

The issue inspired a special city vote in 2001. According to that election, 84 percent of Lewiston voters favored continuing the practice.

“But that vote was 10 years ago and since then the economy is extremely different,” said Councilor Stephen Morgan, who said he hasn’t made up his mind on the matter yet. “We’ve had drastic cuts in funding and assistance. I’ve seen parochial schools closing and merging completely, and churches, too. Do we need to have an election for every issue we need to cut?”

A group of 10 Lewiston residents and parents of parochial school students encouraged councilors to continue the practice.

“Why are we focusing on one group?” asked Michael Poulin of 76 Sherbrooke Ave. “Why would we do that? These students are as much in need of a safe way of getting to school as any other students. Unless we are talking about cutting school bus service in general, why would we focus on one group?”

Councilor Morgan said he was almost convinced to support the current bus service, but said he’s heard from other residents favoring tax cuts.

“I also get emails and phone calls from people who are on fixed incomes and they can’t take an increased mil rate,” Morgan said. “I understand the safety issue, but we’re talking about not paying overtime for staff. We’re talking about not paving streets. We need to have a bake sale or something.”

Councilors also reviewed the School Department’s budget, which calls for a 2.5 percent spending increase with no tax rate increase.

Councilors are scheduled to vote on the $52.5 million budget at the May 3 meeting. It goes to voters for validation on May 10.

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