PITTSFIELD, Maine — Starting next fall, any school district that voluntarily holds a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds must provide transportation to and from school for those children, even if their parents choose not to have them ride.

The result could be millions of dollars in additional costs to Maine schools and bus companies.

Because of the young age and small stature of these pupils, the expenses include retrofitting buses to include booster seats, seat belts or harnesses, and increased personnel costs to put educational technicians on each bus run as safety monitors.

“Even the steps to get on the bus are too tall in our district,” one superintendent said Friday.

If the dollar cost is too high, however, some pre-kindergarten programs could be abandoned.

Most districts, including the Bangor school system and SADs 3, 34 and 56 in Waldo County, already provide transportation. But 25 percent of the schools offering the program have encouraged parents to bring their children to school and do not provide a bus.

Janine Blatt, an early childhood consultant with the Maine Department of Education, said the confusion came because offering the program is voluntary by schools and participation by parents is voluntary.

“Many schools interpreted that transportation was also voluntary,” she said.

Currently, 130 of Maine’s 556 elementary schools — representing more than a quarter of the state’s school districts — offer pre-kindergarten.

Of those 130 schools, 32 were cited by the DOE for not providing transportation after the 123rd Legislature earlier this year amended state law to clarify that transportation must be provided. The law went into effect June 30 but it is only now, when many districts are starting their budget process, that the impact is being felt.

SAD 53-SAD 59 Superintendent Michael Gallagher said Friday that four of his schools have pre-kindergarten programs: Athens, Madison and Starks elementary schools and Manson Park School in Pittsfield. None of them now provides transportation.

In SAD 53, when the Cyr Bus transportation contract was negotiated three years ago, Gallagher requested a cost quote for adding a daily pre-kindergarten bus run.

“It was astronomical,” he said. It would have cost an additional $133,500 this year, Gallagher said, which included the cost of a monitor.

Aside from the increased financial burden, Gallagher said one of the disadvantages to publicly transporting the children is putting tots only 4 years old on buses.

“The thought of that doesn’t ring well with many people, including parents. But we have to provide it, whether parents use the service or not,” he said. “Also, what is really nice now is that parents are bringing their children to the program and that creates a daily parent-teacher contact.”

He said his districts have never considered dropping the pre-kindergarten program because the benefits far outweigh the alternative.

SAD 48, which serves six central Maine towns, does not provide transportation for about 100 pre-kindergarten children, even though the district owns its own bus fleet.

Superintendent William Braun said Friday that Penquis and Kennebec Valley Community Action Program actually run the programs. “We just provide them space in our buildings,” Braun said.

The cost of retrofitting buses and hiring additional educational technicians may be so prohibitive, he said, that he would turn the programs back completely to Penquis and KVCAP. “We won’t be making those decisions until budget time,” he said.

Each district not now offering transportation must create a plan for the pre-kindergarten pupils by July 1, 2009, with transportation to be in place by fall 2009.

“This is no one’s fault,” Blatt said. “In terms of access, for some parents, transportation would be a necessity. But I can see the financial perspective of the schools as well.”