Choteau Acantha: FF Schools receive electric bus grant

by Vonnie Jacobson

The Fairfield Public School system was one of three Montana schools selected to receive funds through the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean School Bus program.

The funding, which came from a bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), will go toward supplying brand new zero-emissions electric school buses and charging stations for school districts of Fairfield, Bigfork and Clinton.

The exact dollar amount Fairfield is eligible to receive is a little unclear. The award letter received by the school district on Oct. 25 states that $2,765,000 has been reserved for use from this program to replace seven new electric buses, which is broken down to $2,625,000 for the buses and $140,000 for eligible charging infrastructure. However, a press release from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and EPA received by the Choteau Acantha says the Fairfield district is slated to receive $395,000 for one bus.

Superintendent Dustin Gordon is still sorting through the paperwork and asking for clarification on the rebate amount. He has been in contact with the director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for some guidance and help.

“It was a surprise, but a great opportunity that can potentially save the district money in their transportation fund,” Gordon said. “We are proceeding with caution and diligence.” The award letter outlines the program and a timetable for applying for and receiving funds. Gordon said the district also received a 40-page question and answer section along with a technical assistance platform to continue their research.

Gordon said Fairfield Schools had not anticipated even being in the running but took the time to do some research and provide their district data.

Gordon explained he approached the board last summer regarding the program announced by the EPA in May for the availability of $500 million for its Clean School Bus Program. The administration and board agreed applying for one or two buses along with the charging stations would be worth the time spent filling out the grant application. The application process was a collaboration between Gordon, district clerk Denise Grant and Paul Wilson the transportation director. The deadline closed in August.

“As the new transportation director, the application process was perfectly timed to give Paul the opportunity to familiarize himself with the school district’s fleet of buses,” Gordon said.

The Fairfield school district owns all its buses. The school system operates five rural bus routes ranging in distance of 60 to 100 miles per trip. Fairfield has a fleet of seven yellow school buses, at least one of which is fully depreciated and ready to be replaced.

During the application process, the district was required to provide information on its entire fleet of yellow school route buses. Gordon noted the application process considered the school’s distance from an urban area, along with some of their district socio-economic financial information. Gordon also believes selection was regionalized in the state.

Gordon emphasized they provided the needed information for the application, but it was never the intention of the district to replace all seven buses. The board’s discussion was to replace one bus and install a charging station at no cost to the district. “We were looking to be proactive, not knowing if in the future, the school district would be encouraged to move in this direction anyway,” he added.

“The school district is waiting for confirmation on whether the funds can be applied to one or two buses or if it must use it all or lose it situation,” Gordon said. Like all funding for transportation, the grant/rebate can only be used for purchasing these buses and cannot be used for general fund.

Gordon said the same holds true if the district does use these funds to purchase a bus, the money saved in the transportation depreciation fund cannot be transferred for use in the general fund. The board will discuss options at its Nov. 14 meeting.

In addition to the three selected schools, 10 other Montana schools applied and were not granted funding but are on a waiting list for consideration.

At this time, the agency has selected 389 applications totaling $913 million to support the purchase of 2,463 buses, 95% of which will be electric. EPA will distribute awards to school districts in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and several federally recognized tribes and U.S. territories. School districts identified as priority areas serving low-income, rural and/or tribal students make up 99% of the projects that were selected. More applications are under review, and the agency plans to select more to reach the full $965 million in the coming weeks.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is delivering cleaner air and healthier environments for school children in communities across the Mountains and Plains region,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker. “These zero-emission electric buses will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and eliminate exposure to harmful pollutants such as soot, fine particulates and nitrogen oxides. We look forward to expanding these efforts through future rounds of clean bus awards for our school districts.”

Those school districts who received an award can now proceed with purchasing new buses and eligible infrastructure. Selectees will need to submit Payment Request Forms with purchase orders demonstrating they have ordered new buses and eligible infrastructure. EPA is also partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Transportation to provide school districts with robust technical assistance to ensure effective implementation.

Through future rounds of funding, EPA will make available another $1 billion for clean school buses in fiscal year 2023.

FF Schools receive electric bus grant | News |