YORK — As New York embarks on a switch to electric school buses, numerous area officials are describing it as unrealistic.
District superintendents and board of education members shared their worries Saturday during the Genesee Valley School Board Association’s annual legislative leadership breakfast.
State law requires all new school buses to be zero-emissions by 2027, with all-electric fleets by 2035. But school officials said the requirement doesn’t match up with the realities facing their rural districts.
“We’ve got three diesel buses coming at $125,000 apiece,” said President David Dwyer of the Geneseo Central School Board of Education. “The current price of an electric bus is close to $450,000. Not to mention all the electric and stuff you’re going to need — the infrastructure and all that.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “Currently we get the aid back over five years. Albany’s telling us you’ll get the aid back on an electric bus over 12 years. I’m not sure we can ever get a bus proposition passed with this high of a number.”
Dwyer was attending a question-and-answer session with Assemblyman Steve Hawley, R-Batavia, as part of the breakfast at York Central School. Separate sessions were conducted with Assemblyman Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, and State Sen. Pamela Helming, R-Canandaigua.
School officials said that although they care about ecology, requirements passed by downstate lawmakers aren’t taking rural areas into account.
Superintendent Jared Taft of Alexander noted the high costs of electric school buses and chargers — along with the infrastructure needed to get the required electricity from utility poles to the bus garage. He said a financial incentive was available to help cover such expenses, but Alexander some other area districts didn’t qualify.
“ ... How do we get that message to the downstaters who have to bus (an area) the size of a postage stamp that’s nice and flat at all times, with quick in-and-out runs in 15 minutes, while we’re doing two rounds of 40 minute runs?” Taft asked.
Other area school districts, along with those in the North Country and Southern Tier, face a similar dilemma, he said.
The school officials suggested possibly a hybrid system allowing a mix of combustion-engine and electric school buses. They noted the long distances local buses typically travel, which could drain electric bus batteries quickly despite technological improvements.
Superintendent Todd Campbell of Letchworth Central School stressed the practical issues districts face — again noting transportation worries. “We speak of electric buses,” he said. “How about the people who drive those buses? The average age of our drivers is probably 62 years old.”
The drivers love kids, and some also take the job for the benefits, but state mandates are becoming increasingly stringent, Campbell said. Letchworth also provides transportation services for neighboring Perry Central School to consolidate and reduce costs. But the challenges don’t end.
“It just seems like every time we make a step forward, there’s three more mandates and barriers to hold us up,” Campbell said. “Now there’s new mandates for occasional drivers.”
An occasional driver would be a person such as a teacher or coach transporting one or two students to a game or function, he said. They now face mandatory drug testing and similar requirements.
“It is making it so difficult to take just two students to a music fest,” Campbell said. “These are just simple, practical things that would help us ... We don’t have a workforce for this. We can have all these beautiful buses and nobody to drive them.” Campbell asked why a teacher — who’s fingerprinted, has passed a physical and has a driver’s licence — can’t drive two students in a Suburban to an event.
Kids lose opportunities as a result, he said.
“I don’t understand that,” Campbell said, expressing his frustration.
“And neither do the people making those mandates,” Hawley responded. “And the repercussions.” Hawley had earlier said that he believes the state’s timeline for electrification — including for cooking and home heating — will be pushed into the future.
“Guess what?” he said. “(Electricity) still costs and if we move too rapidly toward greening us, if you will, it will bankrupt us ... Many of us believe those dates are going to be pushed away further because it’s impossible, economically and financially. It’s not a possibility to do that.”
Hawley stressed the importance of building cordial relationships and communication. He told those gathered to make their voices known, including “email, email and email” to Gov. Kathy Hochul and State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins.
He also recommended sending color postcards as another affordable way for people to express their opinions.
“That’s the deal right now especially as we wait for the governor’s budget,” he said.
FISCAL CLIFF WORRIES
Three major priorities were highlighted Saturday in a policy statement made available by the Genesee Valley Chief School Officers Association.
The statement was shared during the GVSBA legislative breakfast that attracted about 100 area officials.
Issues included: n Fiscal stability and education funding — Area school districts are deeply concerned about their short and long term fiscal stability.
The districts have benefited from an infusion of emergency federal funding over the past two years. But what they described as inadequate and unequal state aid remains a worry.
Existing state Foundation Aid levels aren’t enough to make up fir increasing expenses, salaries, benefits, security and similar costs.
“We are approaching a fiscal cliff with the potential for devastating cuts in programs and services to children and families,” the statement reads.
n Teacher and staff shortages — An ongoing shortage of highly-qualified job candidates poses a serious threat to area districts’ ability to remain academically competitive.
The statement blamed “the former administration” for efforts to discredit the teaching profession and public schools in general. It also described bureaucratic hurdles to teacher certification, low salaries, shrinking benefits, and cots of college tuition.
“With educators and education under attack, a complex education bureaucracy and little hope of prosperity for new teachers, the teacher shortage is no surprise,” the statement reads. Officials said critical support staff are also in short supply. The identity of “the former administration” was not named in the statement.
n Lack of focus on rural school district needs among state leadership — Continued marginalization of rural communities in the local region poses a serious threat to students, according to the statement.
Smaller districts are under a constant barrage of initiatives driven politically by down state or large city priorities, the statement reads. Bureaucratic compliance requirements add to the burden.
Those are obstacles to focusing on children, according to the statement.
“Coupled with the looming fiscal cliff, we are deeply concerned not only for their future, but for the future of their families, our schools and our communities,” the statement reads.