District is poised to be one of the first in NY to move toward electric bus fleet

Fully electric school buses could begin rolling (quietly) through neighborhoods in Bethlehem in 2021-22 if residents approve a bus purchase proposition in May that would begin a transition of the district’s bus fleet from diesel-fuel to zero-emission electric school buses.

If approved, BC would be one of the first school districts in New York state to make the move toward an electric bus fleet by introducing up to nine electric buses next year. One downstate district — White Plains Public Schools — has used five electric buses since 2018 as part of a pilot project run by a privately-owned firm. Bethlehem could be one of the first K-12 school districts in New York to ask its residents to decide on a commitment to electric vehicles.

Voters will decide on the bus proposition as part of the annual school district budget vote which will be held this year on Tuesday, May 18. The district serves more than 4,300 students from the towns of Bethlehem and New Scotland in Albany County.

At its March 17 meeting, the Bethlehem Central Board of Education approved a bus plan that includes the purchase of electric buses to be put before voters. The board is still working on budget development, with a proposed budget for 2021-22 expected to be finalized on or around April 14.

“We have determined the time is right to seek approval to begin making this change to our fleet of vehicles,” said Holly Dellenbaugh, president of the Board of Education. “District administrators are working hard to leverage all available incentives to allow the district to evolve its fleet in a cost-neutral way and now voters will have the opportunity to weigh in.”

As described at the meeting by BCSD Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe, the bus plan for 2021-22 would allocate $1,675,000 for the purchase of up to nine large school buses and charging stations to accommodate the electric buses.

The purchase would need to be approved by voters as part of the annual bus proposition, as is required for all capital acquisitions. The district receives a return of state aid of approximately 64.8 percent on transportation costs. The state aid on the purchase of the buses and charging stations would be approximately $1 million.

Kehoe said the school district uses an annual bus replacement plan to determine when older buses have reached the end of their useful lives and will become more expensive to maintain than to replace. This year’s plan would remove nine large 2009 diesel buses. Doing so allows the district to qualify for approximately $1 million in grants from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) to purchase up to five electric buses.

Incentives would provide cost-effective path to electric bus purchase

Leveraging the NYSERDA funding is key to the purchase of electric buses, Kehoe said.

“The amount that we would receive from NYSERDA would bring the cost of a new electric bus within $40,000 of the cost of a new diesel bus,” said Kehoe. “If you factor in all costs over the life of both types of buses, now you have two vehicles that essentially cost the same, but with the added benefit of one being environmentally-friendly.”

Kehoe said plans for the district’s first electric buses have not been finalized. She said the final plan could include nine electric buses or a combination of some electric and some diesel buses depending on both available incentives and the available supply of the electric vehicles for the next school year.

“We are excited by the possibilities of building an electric school bus fleet, yet we understand the many variables at play and we ultimately rely on the community to let us know if we are headed in the right direction,” said Kehoe. “Voters should know that we do have other options if purchasing the buses directly turns out not to be feasible.”

Kehoe said the district was also looking closely at the benefits of soliciting bids for a long-term lease agreement with a company that provides turnkey electric buses for school districts. These companies provide the buses, install the charging stations and provide training for drivers and mechanics. If the district were to look at the turnkey option, any approved monies as part of the bus purchase proposition would not be spent by the district.

“Either way, this would be a bold move toward what most experts see as the future of cleaner, safer and more efficient transportation,” said Kehoe.

Superintendent Jody Monroe said she credits Kehoe and Karim Johnson, the district’s director of transportation, for their hard work in developing a plan that could put the district on the leading edge of institutional use of electric vehicles in New York state. She also credits something else, a challenging year dealing with a global pandemic.

“One of the many things COVID has taught us is not to be timid,” said Superintendent Jody Monroe. “We had thought about starting with one electric bus, maybe two. But we are not dipping our toe in the water with our plans to go electric. Five buses or more would give us a much better idea of the long-term feasibility of an electric bus fleet. We expect incentives to become more plentiful and the technology to improve even further. This plan has us jumping in with both feet but first, we would need the support of the community.

“This plan, at its core, is to move at a pace that will allow us to maintain a bus replacement schedule that provides the safest, most reliable transportation for our students,” Monroe said.