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Schools moving swiftly on electric bus fleets

AP photo New York state has tasked schools with purchasing electric school buses. On Aug. 22, the first will be unveiled at Lake Shore Central School.

Local school districts have more questions than answers when it comes to electric buses.

The mandate came down from the government in January as a part of the 2022-23 state budget, due to school buses that run on diesel fuel being known as one of the biggest air polluters in the country. The mandate says all districts have until 2035 to transfer the entire fleet of buses into electric buses and that all new buses must have zero emissions by 2027. New York State is the first state to make this a requirement, but other areas across the country are working toward a similar goal.

Most districts in and around Chautauqua County are taking a wait-and-see approach while a larger district is ready to unveil the first of its kind vehicle later this month. On Wednesday, Lake Shore Central School in Erie County announced Western New York’s first electric school bus will be a part of its fleet.

The bus will transport Lake Shore students from Angola to Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES programs in Dunkirk, Fredonia and Cassadaga, and back to Angola. Members of the community will have the first chance to ride it at a Monday, Aug. 22 roll out event, starting at noon for the district’s, and the region’s, first electric school bus.

In preparation for this new, and future, additions to the Lake Shore fleet, some 30 drivers and mechanics will participate in training on Monday, Aug. 22.

In the morning, mechanics will have the bus up in the air for a walk around.

At noon, the bus will be brought to the High School’s new athletic entrance for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, followed by brief rides around the campus for those who want to experience the quieter, smoother ride of an electric bus. Afterward, drivers will be trained on operating the 71-passenger vehicle.

“Eliminating diesel fuel emissions provides public and environmental health benefits, and electric buses also offer school districts operational savings,” said Superintendent Dan Pacos. “The upfront cost of an electric school bus is higher than a diesel, but electric buses cut fuel and maintenance costs in half over the vehicle’s lifetime. We anticipate annual savings of $15,000 in fuel and maintenance costs with the electric bus.”

Closer to home, schools are still in the early process. According to Joseph Reyda, superintendent for Bemus Point Central School, the government has given little room for leeway on this mandate for rural schools.

“It sort of feels like it came out of the blue,” Reyda said. “We assumed they would give us a little leeway, and that we’d be able to look into things such as hydrogen-based buses that might work better for us. But no, we have to change it to electric buses. Now we’re just trying to figure out how to do this in the district’s best interest.”

While there is some time to get things figured out, Reyda said there are many questions that concern him for rural districts.

“I figured out that the incoming kindergarten class this year is the class of 2035,” Reyda said. “So, when they are seniors we will have to have all electric buses. We most definitely have questions. How available are these buses going to be? We’re concerned about infrastructure, because we will have to redesign the bus garage. Will it have the grid-power capacity to be able to allow us to charge the buses?”

Other questions include how far will the buses be able to travel on a rural route, will there be a slow and quick charge option, and what will it cost?

“We have a system where we usually get two new buses a year,” Reyda said. “If we have to replace all of them with electric buses immediately, that will lead to more questions because these buses cost more than twice the cost of a regular bus. I feel like we don’t have a lot of time to figure it out. We did have a panel to talk about this and though it was well attended there were no definitive plans. I think we’re all in the same boat.”

Other schools have similar questions to Reyda.

“I’m all for Randolph trying to reduce their carbon footprint,” said Randolph Central School Superintendent Kaine Kelly. “However, this mandate leaves us with many questions. Who’s paying the money for these buses, and where is that money going to come from? These buses cost almost twice that of a normal bus, which we normally have state aid to help us get. Will that aid still be available if all of the districts are doing this at the same time? If we can’t meet the state’s demand, then what happens?”

Like Reyda, infrastructure of the bus garage was also a concern for Kelly.

“Our garage was built in the 1950s,” Kelly said. “We don’t know what will be needed for the charging stations. We are one of the school districts with the largest land mass for our buses to travel. Will the buses handle great distances, elevation changes, or severe weather? Do we have to charge them in between for morning and night trips? Can they handle sports trips? We have a lot of questions that need to get answered before this 2035 deadline.”

For Panama Central School, the same concerns exist.

“It does look like the state is moving that way,” Bert Lictus, outgoing Panama Superintendent said. “I believe we are required to start making these changes by 2027. We have a lot of questions, how the chargers will work, what’s the mileage capacity, will they handle the cold temperatures? The district is very aware of this. We definitely have more questions than answers right now. But, the district will continue to monitor this situation.”

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