Fort Payne approves Alabama’s first electric school buses

Riding the school bus is typically a mundane rite of passage for many kids, but some Fort Payne students will soon get a preview of the future of transportation when one of Alabama’s first-ever 100 percent electric school buses pick them up for the daily trip to class.

It will happen next year as a result of actions taken Thursday at the Fort Payne School Board’s January meeting.

Board Vice-President Randy McClung made the motion to purchase four new school buses, including the first two fully electric buses to operate in the state of Alabama. Board member Neal Baine offered a second and the motion was approved unanimously.

The board allocates fleet renewal money with the goal of adding two new school buses each year. Superintendent Jim Cunningham said the new additions to the bus fleet are “a really big deal, and we expect them to arrive in July. I got news over the Christmas break that our grant had been accepted. It is a fantastic opportunity for us to do this. To my knowledge, we will be the first public school system in the Southeast to have electric buses. We’ve been looking at it for a while. They will become more possible in the future. We are proud to say that next [school] year, we’ll have that, plus we [also] have the two diesel buses.”

Cunningham said the acquisition would not have been possible without the hard work and persistence of Transportation Director Laran Crowe-Adkins, who completed an extensive application process to get the grant money.

Sourcewell is the vendor for all four of the Blue Bird-brand school buses, costing a total price of $1,006,688 through a pre-approved cooperative purchasing agreement.

The purchase involves two conventional diesel-powered 2021 Blue Bird Type “D” passenger T3FE 3909 buses with air conditioning, each cost $106,000. The two full-electric 2021 Blue Bird Type “D” 78 passenger T3RE 4006 buses with air conditioning cost $397,344 each.

“The buses are very expensive, and the only way we could get these is through a grant,” Cunningham said. “And just in case that wasn’t accepted, we also applied for the low-emission diesel that we usually apply for.”

The school system is paying just 20 percent of the total cost of the buses and using a grant awarded by Gov. Kay Ivey from $25 million the state is receiving from the $2.9 billion nationwide settlement against Volkswagen for violating the U.S. Clean Air Act.

“We are getting about $800,000 dollars for free,” Cunningham said.

The electric buses can fully charge at stations twice daily, but a single charge should be sufficient to cover a round-trip route of about 120 miles. The batteries are expected to operate at 100 percent for at least 3,000 cycles and have an expected life of 80 percent after eight to 15 years, depending on usage. Fourteen Lithium-Nickel Manganese Colbalt batteries are separated into two groups of seven with a capacity of 155kW, wired together to power the components of the bus and water-cooled by an AC Compression that acts as a water chiller circulating cold water to the batteries to keep them at a constant optimal temperature.

Severe cold weather and running the heater or air conditioning do impact battery performance by 10-15 percent, according to the information provided by Blue Bird.

Cunningham said the school system is also exploring cost-efficient propane-fueled school buses in the future.

When the school buses arrive, local maintenance personnel will receive training, and state personnel will be right there beside them to learn since this is a first for Alabama.

“There is a training curve to driving these,” Cunningham said. “They’re quiet, practically silent and very responsive. When you’re driving a diesel bus, usually it builds up steam as it moves. These are very quick moving and very efficient.”

As a safety feature to compensate for the lack of motor noise that would alert others, Cunningham said the electric buses artificially generate a sound. The vehicles will also have blue bumpers in case first responders need to distinguish them from other buses in the fleet.

Board Chairman Jimmy Durham said, “We always like being #1 in the state” and joked that the school golf team “will really like this because they’ll think they’re on a giant golf cart” due to the absence of noise from a motor.

The electric buses produce zero emissions, which means cleaner air, and contain fewer parts, which should translate into less maintenance needed. The lack of a transmission means only two gears, forward and reverse, and there’s no lubricating oil, no fuel filters or air filters to maintain and replace, as there is with diesel-fueled buses.

Cunningham said the standard warranty is for five years and 100,000 miles, but it is being extended at no additional cost to the school system to eight years and 175,000 miles.

The safety of riders is always a concern with school buses. According to the Blue Bus materials, the new vehicles meet standards to ensure structural integrity in the event of a rollover accident or in instances of collisions.

A major benefit of the vehicles is the embedded technology to track vehicles and analyze data to continually monitor performance. This can result in critical data to determine efficient routing and remote diagnostics.

In other business, the board:

• accepted the resignation of Bobby McKeehan as bus driver, effective Jan. 15, and approved hiring Jimmy Poe as a full-time bus driver for the system. Cunningham encouraged qualified drivers to sign up as substitute bus drivers.

• approved hiring Ashley Jackson as Assistant Varsity Track Coach at Fort Payne High School, effective for the current school year.

• approved hiring Hannah Goggans as a Pre-K aide at Wills Valley Elementary School, effective Jan. 6.

• approved a request for unpaid maternity leave by Fort Payne Middle School math teacher Rachel Blevins, effective March 16 through May 22.

• approved additions to the substitute personnel list.

• authorized teachers Hannah Turner and Jessica Hayes to provide homebound services for two students and continue per physicians’ written orders until the students can return to school or move out of the system.

• approved the addition of a Principles of Engineering class to be added to teacher Amanda Wells’ schedule for the current semester at Fort Payne High School to accommodate requests from students to take the class.

• approved a request to advertise an additional Junior Varsity Girls Softball coaching position, due to increased student participation, for the current school year only.

• approved a request for out-of-state travel from Fort Payne High School Principal and Athletic Director Brian Jett for the Fort Payne High wrestling team to participate in the Darlington Classic in Darlington, Georgia on Jan. 25.

• approved the November and December financial statements and bank conciliation reports.

• set the next school board meeting for Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. in the conference room of the Central Office.

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