Federal electric bus program leaves Chicago, other school districts behind

Chicago Public Schools and dozens of other Illinois school districts are locked out of a federal electric school bus program as they serve tens of thousands of low-income students in overburdened areas. fossil fuel pollution.

Applications for the first round of funding under the Clean School Bus program are due today. Several districts did not qualify due to what some lawmakers, superintendents and advocates say are design flaws in the program.

The Clean School Bus Program, created by last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, offers $5 billion in rebates for electric and low-emission buses and charging infrastructure for up to in 2026, of which $2.5 billion is specifically earmarked for electric buses and chargers.

The program requires each electric bus rebate to directly replace a diesel bus, with the goal of removing aging diesel buses from service. But many districts pay contractors to run their buses, and districts can’t get rebates if they can’t persuade their contractors to scrap a bus or find an eligible bus to replace. They also cannot qualify if they go from being an entrepreneur to owning their own fleet.

The first round of funding will be awarded through a lottery between districts on a priority list for schools with more than 20% of students below the poverty line, based on Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates. This is a different set of data than that used to determine the need for free and reduced-price school meals and other supports. Chicago’s public schools — with an enrollment of more than 330,000 low-income students and more than most districts in the country — have 19.9% ​​of students below that poverty line, hence the district doesn’t not meet the 20% criteria, even if individual schools and parts of the district meet the threshold.

“The model chosen by the EPA prevents entire districts that have thousands of predominantly black and brown students below the poverty line from receiving priority treatment,” wrote U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky and a dozen other Illinois congressmen in June. letter to EPA. “CPS serves more low-income students (many of whom live in areas with poor air quality) than the entire student body in many districts included on the priority list.”

Illinois’ Climate & Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) passed last fall includes a carbon-free schools initiative that prioritizes school districts in East St. Louis and the southern Chicago suburbs of Harvey and Thornton . East St. Louis and Harvey districts are on the EPA’s priority list for electric buses, but Thornton is not.

The districts of Harvey and Thornton are adjacent, and in fact, Thornton Township High School is actually in the town of Harvey. In District 152 of Harvey, 99% of students are qualified for a free or reduced price lunch; in District 205 of Thornton, 64% of students are qualified for a free or reduced price lunch.

“They basically serve the same community, but Harvey is considered a priority district, but Thornton is not,” said Mia Korinke, director of the Carbon Free Schools Initiative for Climate Jobs Illinois, a coalition of labor-focused organizations. on climate and energy policy.

Durbin’s letter said the priority list also did not include the Waukegan school district in northern Illinois, which is home to five Superfund sites and a recently closed coal plant. More than 60% of high school students are low income and the Student Council is 79% Hispanic and 13% black.

chase the buses

School District 189 in East St. Louis has requested 25 electric buses and charging stations to serve its students in a low-income, majority African-American district heavily impacted by pollution from coal-fired power, fuel refineries and petroleum and other industries. Although the district does not own its own buses, its bus contractor – Illinois Central – has promised to meet disposal requirements.

“They identified specific buses that would be taken off the roads if our bid was successful and helped put together the details required in the bid,” said district executive director of communications and partnerships Sydney Stigge-Kaufman. “In addition, our local power company, Ameren, helped us estimate how many buses could be loaded and supported at the site based on current power. Each of our partners has been very willing to support our quest for an EV school park. »

Other districts without their own fleet weren’t so lucky.

Thirty suburban Chicago school superintendents sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan outlining the issues and asking for changes to the disposal requirement.

Dr. Kimako Patterson, superintendent of one of the Chicago-area districts, wrote that superintendents and other leaders “look forward to this program, finally seeing it as a chance to change the way our students are transported from diesel and other fossil fuel, zero electric emissions,” while using it as a stepping stone to owning their own bus fleet and creating jobs.

“We were extremely disappointed to learn that the program as it has been rolled out to date would NOT accommodate those transitioning from contracting into bus ownership, as for every electric bus sought, we would be required to identify a bus to be scrapped in order to even enter the lottery.

It’s too late for changes in the first round of funding, but superintendents and advocates are asking for revisions in future rounds. However, future funding opportunities will likely be structured differently and offer less generous grants, experts say.

“The EPA has created an exception to the scrapping requirement for school districts that own a bus but don’t own one old enough – they’ve allowed newer ones to be scrapped, sold, or donated. said Susan Mudd, senior policy attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center and director of ELPC’s electric school bus campaign. “They could have put in an exception for schools going from contracting to owning – but they didn’t choose to do that.”

The EPA revised an earlier version of the plan to allow districts to replace a given diesel bus to receive an electric bus. Mudd said this is an improvement, but it is still difficult for districts to find such a donation.

Patterson said the specific requirements for the replacement bus made the prospect particularly challenging, including mandates to drive the bus three days a week over the past school year, and applicants provide detailed information on miles traveled and the type of fuel.

“Adding the requirement to hunt a scrap bus will waste valuable time for our transportation and finance officers, time already scarce due to the pandemic and regular school obligations,” wrote Patterson, who is Chairman of the Commission of Superintendents for the Study of Demography and Diversity and Superintendent of the Primary District of Prairie-Hills.

The Cut Inflation Act signed August 16 includes additional funding that could go to electric school buses, with $1 billion earmarked for the EPA Clean Heavy Duty Vehicle program, which includes school buses; $400 million of that is earmarked for air quality non-compliance areas like Chicago and East St. Louis. It remains to be seen how exactly the recipients of the funding will be chosen. The law also includes tax breaks of $40,000 for investments in heavy-duty vehicles, including electric buses. Entities such as school districts that do not pay taxes may receive the funds as direct payments.

“We have worked hard to ensure that Class 6 vehicles, which may include school buses, are eligible” for funds from the Clean Heavy Vehicle Inflation Reduction Act, said Jaron Goddard, a specialist lawyer. in clean energy within the law firm’s Energy & Climate Solutions group. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Seattle, and former lawyer and climate staffer for U.S. Senator Patty Murray. “Of course, the program is not just about school buses, so eligible contractors and nonprofit school bus associations will be competing against a number of other eligible entities and vehicles.”

Goddard added that this program only addresses the incremental cost between an electric and diesel bus, rather than the full cost of an electric bus.

“At the same time, charging infrastructure is eligible here, so schools may want to dig deeper into this program for those purposes,” Goddard said. “Overall, this program will take some time for the EPA to pick up, so the best bet for rebates and direct subsidies is still the Clean School Bus program at this time.”

Add solar to the mix

Switching to electric school buses not only eliminates emissions that harm public health, but also plays a role in the state’s broader energy transition. Electric buses can act as batteries on the grid and help utilities meet demand.

Utilities ComEd and Ameren filed beneficial electrification plans July 1 with the Illinois Commerce Commission that could help districts afford and manage charging stations. The commission has 270 days to act after the filing.

“In the Ameren area, they’ve been thinking about pre-meter work — grid upgrades, connecting chargers to the grid, making sure bus barns have the capacity” to recharge, Korinke said. “It’s something you really need your utility for.”

For electric buses to be truly clean, the electricity that powers them must come from solar or wind power.

State CEJA law also includes a well-funded program to help schools get on-site solar power. The District of East St. Louis is conducting a CEJA-funded energy audit that includes exploring the potential of solar energy. The state’s two main teachers’ unions (AFT and IEA) are part of the coalition advocating carbon-free schools, and Korinke said teachers want to add solar and electric vehicles to the curriculum.

Korinke said there was only one candidate for the school solar program when an application period opened shortly after the law was passed, but advocates hope to raise awareness of future applications. .

“A lot of schools don’t know these programs are available,” Korinke said. “The goal is to make sure everyone in the school community, including the students, can really benefit, and it becomes a holistic approach.”

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