North Country schools await more information
By Chloe Bennett
On a Monday evening in October, the superintendent of the Long Lake Central School drove a school bus more than 90 miles to transport soccer players from his own school and Indian Lake’s. The schools’ teams are combined and had games in Johnsburg and Minerva. That evening’s travel was not atypical, Interim Superintendent David Snide said.
Snide obtained his bus driver’s license before retiring as the superintendent of Indian Lake Central School District in 2022, knowing that there would be driver shortages. Long Lake has a fleet of about five buses, Snide said, and around 40 of the 60 students depend on them.
Those loud, bumpy rides marked with the smell of diesel may soon be replaced by a quieter, less odorous alternative.
Beginning in 2027, school buses purchased in New York State must be zero-emission. The mandate is part of the state’s Electric School Bus Roadmap, the first of its kind in the U.S., which has $500 million in environmental bond act dollars allocated in this year’s state budget. A full transition from diesel to electric school buses is expected by 2035, according to the roadmap.
Applications for funding open at the end of November for school districts and third-party operators under contract with districts. The initial round of funding for the buses will be $100 million.
More than 2 million students ride school buses in New York, according to the World Resources Institute, including hundreds in the North Country. A report from Environment America and the Public Interest Network shows that diesel-powered buses produce 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, a number that could be slashed with electric buses.
Particle pollution from the vehicles is also a concern, as children are exposed to fine particulate matter that can penetrate the lungs and contribute to respiratory issues.
However, the cost and viability of the vehicles remain potential obstacles.
A new electric bus costs between $200,000 and $410,000, depending on the type and manufacturer. Blue Bird, IC Bus, Lion Electric and Lightning eMotors are some of the suppliers noted in the roadmap. Using bond act money, the state intends to help purchasers with base vouchers starting at $114,000, a similar cost to a new diesel-powered bus. For a school district like Indian Lake’s, the expense could be immense.
“If I have to replace my entire fleet of buses, and let’s say the most expensive bus I have is $160,000, to replace everything with a bus that’s going to cost $400,000, that’s huge, that’s really significant to our budget,” Mellissa Mulvey, superintendent of Indian Lake Central School, said.
Of the 125 students enrolled in Indian Lake, about 115 ride the bus, Mulvey said. Some are in the vehicles for up to an hour on their routes to school. For extracurriculars, students can be on the bus for around four hours, traveling up to Chazy and back for sporting events. Mulvey said she’s also concerned about the life of electric batteries in the North Country.
Winter nights in the Adirondacks can drop to well below zero, possibly affecting batteries like those powering electric buses. A report from the Environmental Protection Agency said school bus batteries operate most efficiently at 70 degrees, making temperature regulation a critical consideration.
Both Snide and Mulvey say the e-bus initiative could be beneficial for the state and hope to get more information ahead of the program’s deadlines.
“I think moving in this direction is not a bad idea,” Snide said. “Sometimes when you put the cart before the horse, it tends to create skepticism.”
The Lake Placid Central School District briefly discussed the mandate during its Sept. 19 board meeting, saying that it could be more difficult to have electric buses in the North Country compared with the rest of the state. The board said the district may need to purchase a larger fleet in the future to accommodate the region’s climate.
Although the outlay for electric buses can be burdensome, the long-term operating costs could be less than for traditional buses. A report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government states that electric vehicles are more efficient than fossil fuel-based vehicles, as they convert 77% of electrical energy, compared to 12% to 30%.
During a series of 12 issue forums from the Rural Schools Association of New York State, Executive Director David Little said the electric school bus mandate was mentioned nearly every time. Charging the vehicles, implementing infrastructure and associated costs were the main concerns, he said.
Still, Little said he believes the transition is feasible.
“I really do think it’s attainable, whether it’s advisable to spend the kind of financial resources on electric buses when we have other severe educational needs in rural areas, that’s a legitimate policy question,” Little said.
“But, nobody argues with the fact that it would be helpful from both a health standpoint and at an environmental standpoint.”