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Area districts receive EPA funding for electric buses

GRPS tops list of recipients at $5.2M

Multiple districts — Bus fleets at Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kent ISD and Kentwood Public Schools will soon welcome new electric additions, thanks to a round of funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA recently announced around $24 million in rebates for Michigan schools to buy new electric buses through the Clean School Bus Program. GRPS is set to receive almost $5.2 million for 15 buses — the largest award in the state.

Twenty-seven school districts are receiving rebates through the program, which is expected to help 97 schools start a transition to lower-emission transportation setups.

Kent ISD is also slated to bring in 15 electric buses with help from around $3 million in rebates, and Kentwood Public Schools will receive about $800,000 for four buses.

GRPS is receiving more funding per bus than Kent ISD and Kentwood because it’s on the EPA’s list of prioritized districts. The priority designation is assigned to high-need, low-income districts, as well as rural schools and those on tribal land, according to the EPA.

Christopher Dean is the director of innovation at Dean Transportation, which provides transportation services for GRPS and Kent ISD. The company submitted applications on behalf of those districts, and Dean said the funding is part of a larger, long-term effort to make school transportation a greener practice.

Three area districts will receive rebates for electric bus purchases through the Clean School Bus Program (iStock/TW Farlow)

“This is after several years of work for us on the path towards electrification,” he said, adding that the greater Grand Rapids community has been actively advocating for the deployment of electric vehicles for some time. 

“Really, it was a mutual interest between us, each of the districts and the communities that we’re serving that made us apply for it.”

Dean said the funding will be a major boon for cleaner transportation, as the cost of green technology is often prohibitive. 

“One of the reasons it’s so difficult to transition to zero-emission school buses is cost,” he said, estimating that electric units are about $380,000 each, while their diesel counterparts tend to run in the $100,000 to $150,000 range.

Even with the rebates, the full cost won’t be covered. Dean estimated that for GRPS, the bill is expected to be at least $5.7 million for the buses alone, and chargers will be an additional cost on top of that.

Dean said funds are available to make up the difference for GRPS. 

Kent ISD plans to apply for section 74b state aid that aims to provide $125 million in EV funding to school districts. Dean said state aid can be “stacked” with federal rebates from the EPA to close funding gaps.

Kentwood has bond funds for bus replacement to help pay for the buses, said Todd Bell, the district’s executive director of finance and business operations.

‘This is just the beginning of long-term change as it relates to electrification of school transportation.’

— Christopher Dean, Dean Transportation director of innovation

What Comes Next

There are still some details to be sorted out in terms of exactly when the buses will be deployed into the districts’ fleets, but both Dean and GRPS stated that at least some of them are expected to be on the road sometime in 2025.

In the interim, infrastructure needs, placement of charging stations and other logistical issues will be evaluated.

“Deploying electric school buses is hyper-local, meaning site-by-site,” Dean said. “So we’re going to start getting in the weeds of what electrical infrastructure exists on each site where the vehicles are going to be parked, and then in turn what needs to be done to upgrade it to accommodate electric vehicle chargers and all the servicing equipment.”

Dean is working with Consumers Energy to determine next steps with respect to infrastructure and chargers.

There’s also the issue of brand and model, which has yet to be determined. The brand of vehicle will determine what level of additional training will be needed for drivers and technicians, Dean said.

“Everybody who’s involved in transportation will have to go through formal training,” he said. “It looks and feels the same on the outside … but for the drivers, technicians, those involved in the day-to-day, it’s very different in how it functions.”

‘Just the Beginning’

From reduced emissions to long-term cost savings, there are many benefits to adding electric vehicles to school bus fleets, Dean said.

Mark Higgins, supervisor of finance and transportation at Kent ISD, seems to agree. He said Kent ISD’s administration was fully on board with applying for the rebates.

“I think it is a commitment of looking at changes and seeing how those will benefit our school systems and transportation department,” Higgins said. “Hopefully it will work seamlessly with our current buses and we will be able to continue to add to the fleet.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kent ISD and Kentwood Public Schools will each receive EPA funding to add electric buses to their fleets (courtesy)

Higgins thanked Dean for doing the legwork on the application process. 

“Dean Transportation did so much of the heavy lifting for this project,” he said, adding that the funding is a good start in helping with the costs to transition over to electric buses.

Kentwood already has some experience with electric buses, said Bell.

“We kind of dipped our toes into the EV market two years ago with 10 passenger vans that are EV,” he said.

The vans transport students who qualify for transportation under the McKinney-Vento act and live outside the district. They are also used for transportation to local district-related events. The district received a grant from Consumers Energy for charging stations for the vans.

“It’s a responsibility to our environment that we have and to the community,” Bell said. “It’s great for kids too. It’s for the future generation.”

Each district will retire the same number of diesel units that it brings in, which is progress toward state and national goals to get more green vehicles on the road, noted Dean.

“This is just the beginning of long-term change as it relates to electrification of school transportation,” he said. “We’re excited to be able to have the opportunity, and now we’re moving onto the next stage of hard work.”

Reporters Joanne Bailey-Boorsma and Erin Albanese contributed to this story.

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Southwest’s first graduation marks a victory for the community
For some families, FAFSA delays are only the beginning

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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