To get an electric bus, Wrangell schools must first buy an old diesel bus — and destroy it

a Wrangell school bus
A school bus outside Stikine Middle School. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Last fall, Wrangell Public Schools was selected as the only school district in Alaska to receive federal grant funding for an electric school bus. But the district is having some trouble fulfilling the requirements of the grant.

The grant is meant to get old diesel buses off the road by helping districts to buy electric ones. But to get reimbursed for the new vehicles, districts have to prove they’ve junked previously used buses.

The problem is that Wrangell’s three public schools contract with a local company, Taylor Transportation, for bus service. To get a rebate for an electric bus, that private company would have had to destroy one of their buses — something Superintendent Bill Burr says the company decided was not in their best interest.

That put the district’s bus grant in jeopardy.

“Since we don’t run a bus company, we’re looking at the possibility of purchasing a school bus somewhere else, having it disabled and getting the [electric] school bus ourselves, as well as the electric bus charging station,” Burr explains. “I had requested from the EPA: ‘Can I do this? Is this possible?’ They got back to me and said, ‘Well, we don’t see why you can’t.’”

The Environmental Protection Agency gave Wrangell an extension on the grant window until the end of this month. It’s a tight turnaround, but the school board has given Burr the go-ahead to keep trying to work out a solution.

The cost of an old bus can vary wildly. Burr says the district has looked in Southern California, where old school buses can sell on public surplus sites for around $1,000. Up in Alaska, he says his search has turned up old buses closer to $8-$10,000.

But cost isn’t the only issue.

“They have to fit certain requirements of age, that they were diesel, they were running students for the last two years, that they have to be taken out of service,” Burr said. “And there are specific agreements with EPA on what makes a disabled bus. So you don’t have to show them a crushed bus. There are certain ways that would make that bus inoperable according to the EPA.”

Now the district has about two weeks to find an old bus in a workable price range, buy it, have someone disable it, get the disabled bus approved by the EPA, and then order an electric.

Burr says it’s a lot that needs to fall in place, but he wants to do his best to make the grant work.

“We also have to be good stewards of both ours and federal money,” Burr adds, “So if we can’t do it, I don’t want to do it partway.”

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