LAMOINE — Despite some local opposition, the Lamoine School Board has approved a five-year contract with a private company for school bus service.
In a unanimous decision by the five-member board, the school committee voted this week to sign a contract with Laidlaw Transportation. The bus company is expected to send its buses into Lamoine on Feb. 28.
Only hours before the vote Monday evening, a petition was delivered to the Lamoine Town Office that called for a special town meeting for residents to vote on the bus contract.
About 84 residents signed the petition, which said a decision on the bus contract should not “be given solely and exclusively” to school board members.
The town’s administrative assistant, Stu Marckoon, advised the school board members by letter that the selectmen would defer a decision on contract busing to the school committee.
Marckoon said he had consulted with legal staff at Maine Municipal Association who advised any town meeting vote on such a matter could be only advisory in nature.
Marckoon cited state statutes that place the responsibility for decisions about school transportation on the shoulders of the superintendent of schools and the school board.
According to Marckoon, the “statutes clearly state that the power for this decision lie with the school board.”
School Board Chairman Bob Christie said Tuesday that the board’s support for the school bus contract was driven by concerns about student safety and bus safety.
The Laidlaw contract, he said, promises a more rigid maintenance schedule, the use of new buses, safety factors such as two-way radios, a higher level of liability insurance and better training for drivers.
According to Union 92’s business manager, potential savings for Lamoine with a private bus contract are minimal. David Bridgham said Lamoine may save only $6,000 over the five years of the contract. Much more dramatic saving was possible if the board had chosen to decrease the number of buses and bus runs from three to two.
With fewer bus runs, schoolchildren would have spent more time in transit each day and more time at the school in the afternoons waiting for split-schedule bus runs. The school board unanimously favored retaining the three runs to avoid long bus rides for children.
The school board’s consideration of a private bus contract extended over several months while some in town raised questions and lobbied against the change.
One Lamoine resident, Anne Gommel, noted in three different letters her disagreements with the projections about the long-term costs of school transportation used by the Union 92 office.
Bridgham said Tuesday the figures used by Gommel and those used by the Union 92 office reflected basic differences in the assumptions used to predict anticipated costs into the future.
As part of the Laidlaw contract, no bus schedules or student dropoff points will change. The present school bus drivers will be offered employment with Laidlaw at their current rate of pay for one year.
One bus driver implied after Monday evening’s vote that she was resigning her position, but the Union 92 office had received no official notice of her resignation by Tuesday afternoon.
Less than one month ago, another Union 92 school signed a contract with Laidlaw. The Trenton School Committee reached a unanimous decision to sign on with the private company, although some in that community, as in Lamoine, opposed the move.
Bridgham said Tuesday that the Union 92 office has received no complaints from Trenton residents about Laidlaw’s bus service in its first month of operating buses in that town.