In considering budgetary restrictions and the need to develop support infrastructure for electric buses, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) officials are leaning toward leasing two gas buses to replace the aging fleet of existing buses.
With the high school providing bus transportation for schools across the Island, the replacement of the three buses that were purchased in 2010 has become a central topic of conversation among school officials, families, and stakeholders.
At their regular meeting Monday, MVRHS school committee members heard a recommendation from the transportation subcommittee to lease two gas-powered buses for a five-year term.
Transportation subcommittee chair Kimberly Kirk said she was unaware of the flurry of conversation surrounding the decision of whether to purchase the electric buses or lease gas ones. “No one has kept the transportation chair or the committee in the loop on this. Now I am put in the position of justifying things tonight when I didn’t even know this was going to be a topic of conversation,” Kirk said.
She said the transportation subcommittee had met several times over the past few months to look at options for replacing portions of the aging fleet.
Initially, the subcommittee was looking at purchasing two new electric school buses with the help of a state grant that would cover 70 percent of the overall cost
But with each bus comes a price tag of about $400,000, Kirk said, along with the need to install infrastructure that would support charging and regular maintenance.
Kirk added that this discussion came up late in the budget cycle, and uncertainties surrounding the decision made it clear that another route should be taken in the meantime.
Although the Vineyard Transit Authority has offered to provide some charging for the buses, should the school decide to purchase them, those chargers wouldn’t be sufficient to uphold a full-fledged transportation program.
She said the committee is still wholly committed to converting to an all-electric bus fleet, but the most responsible thing to do now is to avoid potential financial headaches due to a lack of proper planning.
“Where charging stations would be located, what we would need in terms of charging, who would perform the maintenance. These are major issues, some of which involve necessary infrastructure changes and investments,” Kirk said.
As part of the decision to lease the gas buses, MVRHS is considering hiring a consultant to help plan out the fleet conversion in the future, so that each step toward electrification is as well-thought-out as possible.
“We want to do this the right way, and not piece it together and head down a path that could end up costing us more because we have to relocate things, or getting us into a situation where we don’t have the necessary maintenance support,” Kirk said.
She added that the school is currently in the midst of planning for the area of Sanderson Road, where buses are normally staged when not in use, and it would behoove the school to integrate planning for electric bus infrastructure into that process.
Following an executive session that dealt with negotiations for a new bus driver agreement, MVRHS committee chair Amy Houghton said it was the committee’s hope to vote on the new agreement in open session after its deliberation. But a number of things were brought up in the executive session, according to Houghton, that needed to be “buttoned up” before finalizing a contract.
“We are so ready to have an amazing agreement for the bus drivers, and it just seemed like there was some confusion in the language. Not really the terms that are the issue, it’s more just about making it clear,” Houghton said,
In other business, a number of budget-related topics were discussed after school auditor Chris Rogers went through the FY20 auditors report.
Budget subcommittee chair Skipper Manter said there is not yet a final recommendation for the budget, but he pointed out a couple of key elements to consider.
One has to do with whether or not to use excess and deficiency (E and D) funds to offset the assessments to the towns, and another related to other post-employment benefit (OPEB) contributions.
“We were supposed to be increasing [the yearly contributions] by a couple hundred thousand this year,” Manter said. The existing OPEB obligation for the school sits around $50 million, and Manter noted that the school hasn’t increased its annual contribution amount in quite some time.
In regards to E and D funds, committee member Robert Lionette said it was indicated that the high school has exceeded its maximum capacity for E and D that can be considered as part of budget planning. He suggested the school look at onetime capital expenditures that are allowed to be offset by E and D.
School business administrator Mark Friedman said that capacity is statutorily set at approximately $1.3 million. Any additional funds are required to be turned back over to the towns as excess at the end of each year.
Manter, regularly a critic of the use of E and D funds, suggested that the school give the funds back to the towns and ask them to reappropriate if they so choose. E and D funds must always be approved for use by all Island towns.
Currently, extracurricular activities at the high school relating to art or sports make up the bulk of the noneducational offerings, and all those participating in extracurricular art or sports are required to provide consent to the schoolwide COVID surveillance testing program.
According to high school Principal Sara Dingledy, the school is looking to expand those testing requirements to all extracurriculars.
Additionally, if students go off-Island for an overnight field trip that is sponsored by the school, those students are required to be in the testing pool the week prior to hopping on the boat, and the following week after they return.
Committee member Kathryn Shertzer said she sees flaws in this precautionary system, and although it’s a good way to mitigate spread from off-Island into on-Island schools, it doesn’t prevent students and families from going off-Island outside of school.
“It doesn’t change the fact that many families take their kids and go off-Island every single weekend, and we are not testing them because they may or may not be consenting. Many of our seniors are going to colleges for tours and interviews,” Shertzer said. “Though this is an opportunity for us to catch something, it is not the end-all be-all answer.”