School officials are looking to purchase five new electric buses, and they’re looking for support from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
On Thursday, The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) Committee unanimously approved applying for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Clean School Bus Grant. The plan is to apply for the funding through the Up-Island Regional School District, which is considered a priority district for serving the tribe.
While districts without the priority designation can also apply for the clean bus grant, transportation consultant Richard Labrie told the committee that up-Island schools could receive around $345,000 per bus compared to about $50,000.
Martha Vanderhoop from the Aquinnah Wampanoag Education Department said the council would want some answers to determine why the tribe should support the funding request. Vanderhoop asked if one of the buses could be dedicated for Chlmark and Aquinnah, or if the tribe could use one of the vehicles for their after-school program.
“There are a lot of issues with transportation as far as kids coming back very late,” she said.
Martha’s Vineyard superintendent Richie Smith said that he and Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools business administrator Mark Friedman will present the grant to the tribal council, but didn’t want to “conflate” an Islandwide transportation and staffing issue with the grant.
“Ultimately, it’s something that’s helpful for the entire Island community,” he said. “We’re talking about … a multimillion [dollar] grant that will be helpful all around.”
Transportation subcommittee members agreed to hold a meeting to hear the issues the tribe has experienced on Wednesday, Jan. 31.
Labrie said only 16 school districts in the state were considered priority districts. “It’s more than serving a Native American population,” he said. “It’s also based on other demographics of the community. It’s a combination of factors that makes you a priority district.”
The priority districts of Boston, Fall River, New Bedford and Worcester, became recipients of the award to fund a total of 85 electric school buses earlier this month, according to a Jan. 8 press release from the Office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Priority districts have a higher chance of receiving the grant as well.
School officials said that the electric buses would be beneficial since carbon emissions would be reduced and they are cheaper to maintain than combustion engines in the long run.
The up-Island school committee has already voted unanimously to apply for funding, contingent upon cooperation with the high school committee. A technicality requires the high school to apply for the funding grant rather.
“Even though they’re their own regional school district, it’s the high school district that owns the bus fleet, has all the bus drivers, and all the transportation supervisors, et cetera,” he said. “The high school has responsibility for all of the transportation for the schools on the Island.”
In turn, Friedman recommended applying to replace five diesel-powered school buses with electric ones through an intermunicipal agreement between the two school districts. With the agreement, the up-Island schools would purchase the buses but the high school would manage the vehicles. An agreement was not available during the meeting and still needed to be drafted.
An issue raised was whether other on-Island districts could use the buses. Friedman said the current structure allows buses to serve students of the up-Island schools and high school students from the up-Island towns, adding that options will be explored on whether the buses can be used in other situations. “I don’t expect that will be a problem, but we will explore that before we recommend final dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s,” he said.
O’Brien asked whether additional charging stations would be installed and who would be paying for the infrastructure upgrades.
According to MVRHS facilities manager Mike Taus, there are currently 400 amps available for the electric buses, 200 of which was added for the most recently acquired electric buses. An addition of 600 amps would be needed if five more electric buses were acquired.
Labrie said the schools could receive federal and state funding for the infrastructure additions, such as through the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. He added that there may also be rebates available from Eversource.
After further discussion, high school committee member Roxanne Ackerman, who is also a member of the up-Island school committee and chairs the transportation subcommittee, moved to take the steps needed to support the up-Island school committee’s grant application. When high school committee chair Kathryn Shertzer asked for an amendment that the approval be contingent upon the tribe’s support, Ackerman said this was not a requirement for the grant; the issues Vanderhoop brought up should be addressed separately from the application.
The high school committee unanimously approved Ackerman’s motion and authorized Shertzer to sign a “school board awareness certification” as a part of the application process.