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Staff Writer

TOWNSEND — Lower diesel fuel price has prompted North Middlesex Regional School District Superintendent Dr. Maureen Marshall to recommend exercising an option in the district’s $1.6 million regular school transportation contract to extend it for a year rather than re-negotiate a new three-year pact.

The district’s bus companies, Brookside Bus of Townsend (23 routes) and Atlantic Express of Long Island’s 15 routes (McCarty buses) would receive respective 6.5 percent and 8 percent revenue increases ($58,781 and $53,784).

Given last summer’s statewide average of 5 percent increases to negotiated school bus contracts, the NMRSD School Committee didn’t immediately jump at the recommendation but will discuss it again at the Dec. 8 district meeting.

“We aren’t looking to spend more money but the contract is expiring (in June),” said committee Chairman Arnold Silva.

Marshall estimated the next round of bus contract negotiations might represent a 3 percent to 5 percent increase. She said there is no question the energy market drives costs, but exercising the extension option would be a very small cost and the two firms have helped keep down labor costs and haven’t increased prices for three years.

“The benefit is we’ll have known transportation numbers going into the next budget cycle,” she said.

New committee member Kenneth Brown, who replaced recently-resigned Ashby member Dennis Moore, questioned whether it may be best to re-negotiate contracts.

It’s a question of six of one and half dozen of another, Marshall said, and although there’s no question current prices are very favorable, having known figures is a favorable way of giving member towns the information they want when the 2010 budget cycle begins.

Re-bidding the bus contracts would take a minimum of nine weeks. Committee member Sue Fitzgerald pointed out that re-bidding typically involves at least two escalation clauses.

Answering committee member Susan Robbins, Marshall said the contract extension’s cost would be low when compared to that expected for health insurance.

“I can’t say we won’t regret it, but I doubt a three-year deal would be better,” Marshall said.

Silva recommended going forward with the extension then quickly beginning negotiations for a fuel oil contract, to take advantage of lower prices there. Business manager Gerald Martin estimated the district has perhaps has a two- to three-week window in which to do so.

“I’m not in favor of rolling the dice,” Silva said. “If they can sharpen their pencils a bit, good, but we should go forward.”

“It’s of critical importance to try to balance commitment to the communities (but) by Dec. 8, we’ll have good information (to go on),” Marshall said.

The $1.6 million transportation contract is separate from the $1.3 million special education transportation agreement.