Story and Photo by Alice Gerard
Senior Contributing Writer
New York state’s requirement that all school districts shift to a fully electric fleet of vehicles by 2035 was described as an underfunded mandate at the Grand Island Board of Education’s meeting on Tuesday at Sidway Elementary School.
“The state has offered up to $500 million in grants,” said Brian Graham, Grand Island Schools superintendent. He and the Board of Education were given that and more information at a presentation, earlier in the day, in the district’s transportation department by a representation of Leonard Bus Sales (from Bergen) “on the upcoming mandates and the law that requires school districts across the state to begin purchasing electric vehicles.”
Graham said, “This is not only school buses, but all vehicles that the school district would purchase: Ford trucks and the like. It’s important for the board and the community to understand that, starting in 2027, when we’re buying buses, every district must buy electric buses. By 2035, all vehicles must be electric in school districts across New York state.”
There are options for emission-free vehicles. They could be “battery operated by electricity, or they could be hydrogen-cell-fueled buses. There are zero hydrogen-cell-powered school buses right now, and it doesn't look like there’s a plan to build any. There’s certainly a plan to build electric buses, but please understand that the state has created a law that is illogical and doesn’t make sense,” Graham said.
There are 700 school districts in New York state.
Electric vehicles cost significantly more than gas- or diesel-powered vehicles.
“Last year, in a proposition, we asked the taxpayer to pay $155,000 each for three diesel- or gas-powered buses,” Graham said. “So, you can see that, traditionally, we do turn over a bus when they get to 10 years old. The community has been very supportive in allowing the district to upgrade to new buses every year. If you’re part of the community, you’ll know that, every year, we have a proposition for vehicles.
“The cost of buying one 65-passenger bus will go from $155,000 to $460,000. In a district that has many buses that we would have to turn over by 2035, this doesn’t make sense. It’s not just that it doesn’t make sense in Grand Island; it doesn't make sense across New York state. Understand that, last year, we spent approximately $465,000 on three large buses, running on either gas or diesel. If we had bought three electric buses, they would have cost $1.3 million. This is a significant burden on school districts that want to thoughtfully plan and want to comply. This is going to prohibit school districts (from complying) unless there’s a tremendous amount of funding from the state to support these purchases.”
“If you do the math, (you see that) $500 million divided by $460,000 is about 1,080 school buses to be purchased across the state,” Graham said. “The state needs 45,000 buses to turn over by 2035.”
The cost of replacing 45,000 buses across the state is $20 billion, said Assistant Superintendent for School Business and Finance Bob Merkle.
The length of time that the state allotted to purchasing electric vehicles is another issue, Trustee Glenn Bobeck said.
“I think that the time frame for (implementing this) is just too short to realistically get there,” he explained. “It’s a good goal, something that we should get to, but there needs to be more thought. I’m guessing that, when the law was passed, there wasn’t much diligence on the state’s part in terms of exactly what has to happen. I think that our district might be better equipped than many others because we have space (for buses and infrastructure), but other districts are going to be significantly disadvantaged by that. They don’t have the space. There needs to be a step back by the government to (figure out what makes sense).”
Board President Ashli Dreher pointed out, “Even if you have more time, you really need the funding to be able to eventually replace an entire fleet. You really need more funding across the state in every single district.”
“We’re not saying that we don’t think that we should buy electric vehicles,” Graham said. “We just think that we need a lot more time to turn over a fleet of electric vehicles.
“We understand that we need to comply, and we’re going to do our due diligence to understand what it would be to add an infrastructure with charging stations and to begin purchasing buses, but we’re not going to be silly about it. We are going to put a lot of pressure on Albany to change this law. I’m all about zero emissions to keep our community safe, but it’s just fiscally irresponsible to ask the communities to subscribe and follow this law, as it’s currently written. We’re going to do our best to apply pressure.
“I attended an Erie County legislative meeting last week and talked to that group. It’s a large group, and they do good work, and they do bring in our legislators to a breakfast, which we’ve attended and have asked to listen to our concerns. We’re activating that Erie County legislative group to nudge back on the lawmakers and help them to understand how illogical this law is for all districts across New York state.
“Secondly, the New York State Council of School Superintendents will additionally nudge back to say, ‘This needs to be thought of in a different way.’ ”
In the News
In other news, the Grand Island Central School District is planning two community forums, in the form of panel discussions, to be held at Grand Island High School next week. People interested in the presentations have the option of watching in person or online. The topics to be presented will be:
•“Keeping students safe: When access to vaping and cannabis increases exponentially,” to be held from 6-7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, in the auditorium.
“I can tell you that the cannabis is being laced with amphetamines. Cannabis is being laced with bath salts. Cannabis is being laced with opioids. Although cannabis is legal, our children are at risk, and they are getting endangered by purchasing or getting access to cannabis that is laced with other things,” Graham said. “And, to that end, I will share with you now, and you’ll hear me say this at a press conference on Friday. You’ll hear me say this at the community forum next week. Some of our staff members became suddenly ill when searching a student’s bag because of the residue and particulates left behind in the bag were laced with cannabis and amphetamines.
“This is a very serious issue, and we wish that the community comes to this amazing presentation of Kids Escaping Drugs, Horizon Human Services, and Dr. Joshua Lynch from the Matters Organization. He’s an addictions expert. The whole intent of this community forum is to talk openly and then share resources and strategies to keep kids safe.
“I’ve been doing this work for 37 years, and I’ve never ever sent anybody to the hospital when they had come in contact with residue or particulates that had laced entities in these drugs. Young children are gaining access to this. We, as a community, need to step up and take action to make sure that our kids are safe and that those around them are safe. Please consider coming to this event”
•A SUNY at Buffalo chat series discussion on “Advancing education with responsible artificial intelligence,” scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, will include staff members from both SUNY at Buffalo and the Grand Island Central School District.
“It will talk about artificial intelligence and the power of good that it can provide every child in education. I think you’ll find it fascinating,” Graham said.
In addition, Graham noted, “October is a Vikings Cares initiative, in which every student in the district is giving back to the community in some way, shape or form.”
He mentioned a group of students who were in Buckhorn Island State Park “to help clean up and help get that state park beautified over time. Great kids doing great work in our community. Every child giving back to our district.”