ATLANTA — From icy roads on wintry mornings in the Appalachian foothills to dirt roads that wash out in heavy rains, it’s not always easy getting to and from school in Georgia.
This year, rising fuel prices are making it more expensive as well. In Douglas County, the school system is budgeting an extra $660,000 for fuel for fiscal year 2023, Superintendent Trent North told the Sentinel earlier this summer.
But help is on the way from the federal government. A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program aims at providing school buses an alternative to gasoline or diesel fuel by funding bus electrification.
The agency will award around $1 billion annually for the next five years to school districts that want to purchase electric, propane, or CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicles.
The funding comes from the infrastructure spending law Congress passed last year. The awardees will be announced in October. Some of the funding can also be used for setting up electric charging infrastructure.
The EPA says that reducing or eliminating pollution from buses helps improve children’s respiratory health. The agency also says alternative-fuel buses also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and maintenance and fuel costs.
Joe Meadows, transportation director for the Ware County Schools, said the county is the largest by area in the state. The district’s fuel expenditures have nearly doubled, Meadows said.
He runs about 73 routes every day. About half of his buses run on diesel and the other half on gasoline, he said. Rising prices on both types of fuel are hitting the district hard, he said.
Meadows said he’s had to double up on some routes to save money. Nevertheless, three days into the school year, the buses are running smoothly.
“We’re working through this day by day,” said Meadows, who must ensure that students who live on dirt roads on the border of the Okefenokee Swamp can make it to and from school each day.
Those long distances and treacherous conditions rule out electric vehicles for his district, Meadows said. He’s considering propane and CNG-fueled bus options, however, as a way of keeping down costs.
Georgia’s second-largest county by area, Burke County, has succeeded in using propane-fueled buses to rein in costs.
The district began converting its buses to run on propane fuel in 2013. It has converted about two-thirds of its fleet so far, Burke County Public Schools spokeswoman Amy Nunnally said.
She said that though diesel prices rose this summer, the district is able to purchase propane at just $1.10 per gallon after a federal rebate.
“Just this year alone, we will save almost $700,000 in fuel costs,” Nunnally said.
Nunnally said the district has started considering electric buses but — like Meadows in Ware County — has questions about whether they are up to the task.
“We are unsure how an electric bus will perform on the many miles of dirt roads we travel daily and how this will impact the traveling range of the vehicle,” Nunnally said. “We are also unsure how long the batteries will last before they must be replaced and the cost to replace them.”
On Wednesday, Macon-based school bus manufacturer Blue Bird announcedthat it may have a solution for this quandary: buy now, convert to electric later.
The new program will allow school districts to retrofit gasoline- and propane-fueled buses with electric technology.
“Blue Bird customers can future-proof their school bus fleet by purchasing gasoline- or propane-powered vehicles and converting them easily and cost-effectively to zero-emission electric buses later,” the company stated in a news release.
The retrofitting process can be completed within 30 days, the company said. Once retrofitted, the buses will be able to travel up to 150 miles on a single charge, depending on battery configurations.
According to Blue Bird, the program will allow districts that may not have electric-charging infrastructure in place yet to convert later, once charging stations are built.
Blue Bird’s had more 500 orders for electric buses in 2021, according to the company’s latest annual report. Although that’s only a small fraction of its close-to-10,000 total order, the company aims to make electric vehicles half of its bus production by the end of this decade.
That push should get a jumpstart from the new EPA bus electrification program. School districts have until Aug. 19 to apply for the funding.
North: First day of school a ‘tremendous success’
Students in Douglas County returned to school on Wednesday. North called the first day a ‘tremendous success.’
“As I visited schools across the district, I witnessed students engaged in learning and enthusiastic about the new adventures the school year would bring,” North said. “Our district aims to continue offering these young scholars a first-class education in a safe and healthy environment. Providing our parents, teachers, and students with the highest level of service is at the heart of everything we do.
“The Board of Education and I express our deepest gratitude to our parents. Douglas County parents have been supportive and patient as we successfully navigated the first day of school. Not only have our employees been a source of pride, but they rose to the occasion. They worked tirelessly to ensure we started the school year as strong as possible. We will continuously build on this community effort by maintaining our commitment to increased student achievement.”
Honoring Sgt. Astree’s legacy
Officers from the Fairburn Police Department escorted Jonathan Astree, the son of fallen department Sgt. Jean-Harold Louis Astree, into his first-grade class on Wednesday. A similar scene played at Alexander for Astree’s daughter, Laurali, who started her junior year of high school.
Their father, an off-duty officer, died in an automobile accident last week on Capps Ferry Road.
North said the school system will continuing to support Astree’s children.
“Police Department Sergeant Jean-Harold Louis Astree served his department with honor and pride,” North said. “Having his fellow officers serve as guards of honor for his beautiful children filled my heart with community pride. Because of them, I have faith in knowing the children of Sergeant Astree will never be alone. His children will not only be surrounded by officers, but they will always have the support of their loving school community. Together, we form a circle of support to uplift and encourage his children. Our school system is grateful for the family of Sergeant Astree and will honor his legacy by continuing to surround his children with love and support.”
A report from Capitol Beat News Service was used in this article.