FREEPORT – Bus drivers for Regional School Unit 5 will keep their jobs, the district’s board of directors decided Wednesday night.

To help fill a projected budget shortfall, the board had considered hiring a contractor to provide transportation to students in Freeport, Pownal and Durham starting as early as this fall.

But, with many parents opposing the change, the board voted 10-0 — with Jonathan Dawson abstaining — to essentially maintain the status quo for the next school year and consider a busing contract in 2011.

This school year, the school district expects to spend more than $1 million for transportation. For next year, it expects to lose $900,000 in state aid from its $21 million budget.

Hiring a busing contractor and selling the district’s buses was one of several measures the board’s finance committee proposed to save money and help balance the budget.

Superintendent Shannon Welsh had estimated the district could save $86,000 a year if it hired a contractor. That figure included drivers’ wages and benefits, and the cost of new buses. Sixteen bus drivers would have lost their jobs.

Instead, the board decided Wednesday, the district will lease buses for Pownal students to replace an expiring lease and begin negotiating a new deal during next year’s budget process.

Board Chairman Nelson Larkins said members had heard from countless parents, drivers and other residents since the busing change was proposed. About 100 people attended a hearing on Feb. 10 and expressed strong support for the bus drivers.

Board member Kristen Dorsey said the message she got from the public was clear. Busing, she said, ”is not a place where people want to cut money. It’s closer to the kids, it impacts kids every day.”

Gary Baker, who has driven buses for Freeport schools for the last eight years, said he was happy with the board’s vote, even if a new decision looms next year.

”They were looking at getting rid of people that make the system work,” he said.

Throughout the process, drivers argued that they have a special relationship with students and an awareness of the community that contractors wouldn’t have.

As someone who lives in Freeport, Baker said most families know him and other drivers, and that offers a sense of security.

Freeport, Pownal and Durham formed RSU 5 last year under the state’s new school consolidation law. Freeport owns 12 buses, Pownal leases its buses and Durham contracts for service through a company called Bo-Mar. That contract will expire in 2011.

Hank Ogilby, president of the teachers’ association in RSU 5, said he was pleased with the vote but knows the district will have to cut costs somewhere.

”It’s going to be difficult. We want to maintain the integrity of the profession but have to be aware” of the budget circumstances, he said.

 

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380 or at:

[email protected]