WALES — The RSU 4 school board is poised to consider on March 12 whether to lay off 15 regular bus drivers and outsource busing next year for annual savings that could eventually equal $190,000.

It will likely be the only time for public feedback before the decision goes ahead, Superintendent Jim Hodgkin said.

RSU 4 has been down this road before: In early 2012, the board decided to accept a bid from Northeast Charter of Lewiston to privatize the busing system, then changed its mind before putting the budget to voters.

In November 2012, the district asked residents in a nonbinding question if they wanted to privatize busing or keep it as is.

Residents in Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales voted 2-1 in favor of as-is.

The makeup of the board is different now, Hodgkin said. Five members have been vocal about supporting privatization.

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It would take a 5-4 vote to move ahead.

“I think the board’s feeling is we probably overdid it last time (with public input),” Hodgkin said.” We’ve had three people get on the board who this is one of their prime agendas. They felt we did not do taxpayers a favor and that the feedback they were getting, pretty strongly in Sabattus and Wales in particular, is that we should have privatized the busing and they wanted us to go back as quickly as we could to address it again.”

The district put out a request for proposals in early February. Seven companies were initially interested, but only one, Northeast, submitted a bid. A subcommittee of the board voted 2-1 on Monday to support Northeast’s proposal, with Robert English of Wales and Nancy Provost of Sabattus in favor and Scott Weeks of Litchfield against.

That bid would save roughly $195,000 in the first year, except that the district would have to work out severance packages for the drivers, Hodgkin said, cutting into savings that first year.

For the next two years of the contract, savings would equal about $190,000, he said.

Currently, 15 full-time drivers and several substitutes drive the district’s 13 runs. They could reapply for their positions with Northeast but would lose the district’s benefits and insurance coverage.

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“(There’s) no guarantee, but the ideal situation is our people continue to do our runs,” Hodgkin said. “I’d like to see all of our drivers make the decision to apply.”

It’s unlikely.

Nicole Labbe-Gervais or Litchfield has driven for the district for 12 years. Applying for your own job is unfair, she said, as is the suggestion that they might not be deemed qualified by the new company despite holding their job for years. If it passes, she won’t apply.

“It went out to the voters of the three towns and the voters said we don’t want to privatize,” Labbe-Gervais said. “They were aware of the costs and they still wanted to keep the bus drivers and the busing system the way it is.”

Current bus drivers are involved in the community, many living in the district and some volunteering in the schools, “things that I don’t think you’re going to get with an outside company because they’re coming here to work, that’s all,” she said.

It took RSU 4 three attempts last year to pass a school budget, the hang-up being rising property taxes. Labbe-Gervais said she understands the argument to look for savings. “I’m a taxpayer as well.”

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“The school board has a hard job regardless of whether I agree with them or not,” she said. “But they do need to listen to the public.”

If the school board doesn’t move ahead with a vote on the bus proposal next Wednesday, it likely will vote on March 26, Hodgkin said.

The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at Oak Hill High School.

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