School buses in a parking lot
East Side Union High School District hoped to purchase six electric school buses through a grant, but costs postponed its plan. Photo courtesy of East Side Union High School District.

The federal government dished out $88 million in grants to California school districts for electric buses, but San Jose schools lost out.

Due to timing, cost and a lack of infrastructure, three local school districts were unable to capitalize on funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program. Alum Rock Union School District and East Side Union High School District didn’t pursue the EPA program since they applied for similar grants elsewhere. San Jose Unified School District didn’t pursue the grant because it lacks the infrastructure to support electric school buses.

Alum Rock Union School District, which buses about 4% of its students, has struggled with antiquated diesel buses, Superintendent Hilaria Bauer said. The district applied to the Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program, which awards grants for cleaner-than-required engines, to purchase new buses, but wasn’t chosen.  

“There is a high need for our district as we have very old buses that need to be replaced soon,” Bauer told San José Spotlight.

About 2.6% of East Side Union High School District’s students are transported by its diesel buses. Spokesperson Sergio Diaz Luna said the district was approved for a $1.6 million grant from Bay Area Air Quality Management District to purchase six electric school buses. But the district learned too late that the grant wouldn’t cover all the costs, and it didn’t have the funds to make up the difference, he said.

The estimated cost per bus was initially about $290,000 at the time of grant approval, but rose by $50,000 per bus to $340,000 during the planning stage, Diaz Luna said. The installation of electric bus chargers and wiring were also too high. The district elected to turn down the grant.

“The upfront cost versus investing in students immediately was what was considered,” Diaz Luna told San José Spotlight.

About $5 billion will be provided by the federal government in the next five years to electrify school buses nationwide. The majority of grant recipients are located in Southern California, but the Alameda, Oakland and San Francisco unified school districts received funding as well.

“Our hope, just like any other district, is to modernize our facilities and bus lines as long as it makes sense with what we have to pay at the time,” Diaz Luna said. “We would be willing to explore it again in the future should there be another grant opportunity. We’re always careful how we’re using our funds and putting education first.”

Infrastructure needs are also a problem for San Jose Unified School District. Spokesperson Esmé Bautista said the school district didn’t pursue the grant as it lacked infrastructure to support electric school buses. Additionally, Bautista said the district purchased new buses in the past seven years which run on renewable diesel, an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional gas-powered vehicles. About 4%-5% of San Jose Unified School District students take the bus, she said.

“We are investigating the possibility of building this kind of network,” she told San José Spotlight, “but at the moment, we are not ready to begin this significant undertaking.”

According to the EPA, it has awarded almost $2 billion for approximately 5,000 school bus replacements. Last fall, the agency opened the 2023 Clean School Bus Rebates program. The EPA expects to award at least $500 million in funding under the 2023 rebate program. Applications are due by 4 p.m. ET on Jan. 31.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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