LITCHFIELD — When Larry Nadeau Jr. rode the bus to school, Sylvia Morrill and Betty Jo Wade were the bus drivers. Now Morrill ferries Nadeau’s two daughters to their schools on the bus.

Nadeau, 33, likes knowing who’s driving the bus and knowing that when he is not at the end of his long driveway to greet it, Morrill will call his cellphone and tell him where she is taking the girls.

He’s afraid that close-knit community arrangement will end now that the school committee has voted to privatize the busing contract to save money.

Discussion about allowing a private company to drive the local school buses has proved deeply divisive.

School committee members of Regional School Unit 4 voted 4-4 Wednesday to put the bus contract out to bid. The district serves Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales.

Because the voting is weighted by population and three Sabattus members — the town with the highest population — voted for it, the proposal was approved. Also, one of Litchfield’s representatives, Joan Thomas, couldn’t attend the meeting and has gone on record as opposing the move.

“I really encouraged the board to vote,” said Superintendent James Hodgkin. “I didn’t want it hanging over bus drivers and the community.” Hodgkin expected the proposal to be defeated. “I was stunned at the outcome,” he said.

Committee members voting to privatize busing were Rebecca Shedd, Robert Gayton Jr. and Greg Provost of Sabattus and Robert English of Wales.

Those voting against contracting out the busing were Vicki Russell and Scott Weeks of Litchfield, Will Fessenden of Sabattus and Amy Morissette of Wales.

School administrators had estimated a savings of $223,000 if a private company handled the busing.

The vote followed the opening of the lone bid for $480,000 to provide school bus services, which came from Northeast Charter & Tour Co. of Lewiston, the firm that is already providing school bus service to Winthrop schools. The RSU4 school department would continue to pay an estimated $676,000 for gasoline and other items.

The proposal calls for Northeast Charter to use the buses already owned by the school district and Hodgkin said the intent of the private company is to hire as many of the school department’s 22 bus drivers as possible.

However, under a contract arrangement, the drivers would no longer be school employees and would lose benefits.

The school committee has yet to vote on awarding a contract.

“There’s still a great deal of contention on the issue,” he said. “So I don’t think we’re ready to award the bid.”

Nadeau was at that meeting and several previous school board meetings, and told the board he opposed having a private contractor run the school buses.

He said he’s friends with the drivers and their families. “They’re really good people and really good to our kids,” he said.

Nadeau also said he wouldn’t mind paying 1 percent more in property taxes to keep the status quo — a position, he noted, that might not be popular with all the residents.

The school board is expected to vote on the school budget at its April 25 meeting at Oak Hill High School, with a public vote set for June 6 and a referendum vote June 12.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams can be contacted 621-5631 or at: [email protected]