One of the county's electric school buses waits in the lot at the Bethesda bus depot. Credit: Em Espey

This story was updated at 12:05 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2023 to include a statement sent by Highland Electric Fleets on the evening of Oct. 19. Updated at 6:12 p.m. to include background information from a spokesperson from Highland.

In a move that has alarmed environmental activists, the Board of Education approved Montgomery County Public Schools’ request to purchase 90 additional diesel buses at its Oct. 12 meeting.

The decision is “shocking and says that the electric bus scheme has collapsed,” said Janis Sartucci, a member of the Montgomery County Parents’ Coalition, an advocacy and watchdog group, that has monitored MCPS’ bus electrification program.

The board approved a request from MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight to purchase and finance “90 transit-style diesel school buses” and the contract states that the board would fund and finance the buses over a six-year term for $14,749,919.

According to the contract, staff in the Department of Transportation (DOT) assessed the “operational needs” of their fleet for the 2024-2025 school year and recommended an increase of 60 more special education wheelchair buses and 30 special education non-wheelchair buses.

Jim Driscoll, a coordinator for a student climate activism internship, BIPOC Green New Deal Interns, said that MCPS students’ part of the internship protested to the Board of Education on Aug. 22 after learning about the potential purchase of the buses.

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“This is just typical of a long line of inaction, lack of transparency, lack of commitment to climate change,” Driscoll said.

Brian Hull, MCPS chief operating officer, said at the Oct. 12 meeting that the school district has run into challenges with the district’s current electric bus contract, such as delayed delivery dates and supply chain issues.

“The buses just simply have not arrived on time and when we were told that they would arrive. We were supposed to receive 120 school buses before school started this year. To date, we have only received 43,” he said.

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In addition, of the 43 school buses that MCPS received this year only a “handful” are on the road transporting students, according to Hull. He explained that once the electric buses are received, each one has to go through a registration process with the state and installation of radios and cameras.

Due to these hurdles, Hull said MCPS has been forced to extend the life of several buses by two years. School buses in Maryland are legally required to be decommissioned after 12 years, but can be extended an three additional years.

Another hurdle MCPS has seen with the new electric fleet is handling the maintenance of EV buses that have broken down. Hull said that once school buses are “down” and not operational, they can be out of commission from three to six months due to supply chain issues in receiving parts for the buses.

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“Any time you are on the cutting edge, the precipice of new technology like this there are going to be challenges. So as I stated, we are fully committed to moving ahead with the electrification of our bus fleet, but need to do so in a way that does not threaten operational excellence that we need to see,” Hull said.

Board of Education member Lynne Harris wrote in an email to MoCo360 that the school district moved forward to buy the diesel buses to ensure they have the capacity to get MCPS’ special needs students to and from school.

“We are trying to be nimble and adapt to emerging technology and supply chains, but bottom line we have to ensure that we always have the ability to get kids to school,” she wrote.

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MCPS bus electrification program

In February 2021, former Superintendent Jack Smith announced MCPS would begin to replace 326 of more than 1,300 of its diesel school buses with electric buses over a span of four years. Smith introduced the program as part of the school district’s “commitment to sustainability.”

MCPS was met with praise and national recognition for the nation’s largest electric school bus fleet.

According to a press release announcing the electric bus program, on a typical school day MCPS diesel buses use approximately 17,000 gallons of fuel. By replacing the diesel buses with electric buses, the school district aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and answer the calls of climate-concerned students who asked the Board of Education to switch over to electric school buses.

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One of those students was Richard Montgomery High School sophomore Rosie Clemans-Cope, 15, who is also an activist with Sunrise Movement Rockville and Fridays for Future – a global youth climate activist group – and is a member of UN YOUNGO – the global children and youth constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Clemans-Cope told MoCo360 that she helped organize petitions, protests and actions to push MCPS to go electric and act on climate change. While the students were eventually successful, she feels the school district is going back on its promises, she wrote in an email.

Students “deserve healthier, quiet electric buses” and MCPS should not continue to buy “dirty, polluting, noisy diesel buses,” she wrote. “MCPS needs to protect students and respond to the climate crisis like their house is on fire – because it is – reducing emissions is urgent, and the consequences of not doing it are catastrophic.”

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So far, MCPS has a total of 1,410 buses in its school bus fleet, 130 of which are electric school buses, according to MCPS spokesperson Chris Cram. Out of all electric buses, 98 are in operation and transporting students.

According to a resolution brought to the school board for MCPS to partner with Massachusetts-based Highland Electric Transportation, Inc. (now, Highland Electric Fleets), the total lifetime contract cost for the 326 electric buses is $186,684,990. The contract said the cost is “projected to be recovered through funds that otherwise would have been spent on diesel school bus purchases and operations.” In addition, MCPS contract with Highland projects that there would be 25 electric buses for fall 2021, 61 buses delivered in fall 2022 and 120 electric buses each school year after.

Currently, Highland has fallen behind on its delivery of electric buses to MCPS for this school year.

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Highland Electric Fleets did not immediately respond to MoCo360’s request for comment and more information about the progress of their project with MCPS. The company facilitates the deployments of electric buses and charging stations to schools and school districts across North America, according to its website.

On Oct. 19 Highland sent a statement to MoCo360 in regards to their partnership with MCPS. The statement said that Highland is committed has deployed 130 electric buses to MCPS in total, and so far this school year they have deployed 44 electric buses and plan to deliver 76 additional buses for the rest of the 2023-2024 school year.

“We are committed to being a strong long-term partner for MCPS and the broader community,” the statement reads.

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In addition to electric buses, Highland has “installed infrastructure across five MCPS [bus] depots to deploy another 120 electric buses in the 2024-2025 school year,” according to the statement.

In addition, according to the statement, Highland has experienced late bus deliveries from its contractors and manufacturers and supply chain disruptions have caused a delay in receiving replacement parts for vehicles needing repairs in a “timely manner.”

According to the statement, Highland is in discussion with MCPS about the next round of bus deliveries for the 2024-2025 school year and “stand ready to deliver 120 electric buses per our contract.”

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A spokesperson for the company said that Highland actively works with its customers on delivery schedules and that students at MCPS, including special needs students have not been “at risk” due to Highland’s bus delivery.

They added that as of Oct. 19, Highland has sent an additional 18 more electric buses to the school district and of the 130 electric buses in MCPS lots, the company can confirm that 89 of those are in operation. The buses that are not operational need radios, which are ordered by the school system and will be operational once installed.

Read the full statement below.

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In May 2022, FOX 7 News in Baltimore asked MCPS about why only seven out of 24 electric school buses they had in possession were transporting students four months after the buses were delivered in December 2021.

MCPS responded: “The electric bus contract with Highland Electric was set to begin this year in FY22; not in FY21. MCPS encumbered the funds for the 25 buses in FY21 as part of a savings strategy in the budget to increase the surplus in FY22. To date, MCPS has received 24 of the 25 buses, with one more expected in the next two weeks as it is currently being prepared at the dealership.”

The report detailed issues with buses delivered by Highland Electric Fleets such as problems with the vehicles’ plastic frame in Philadelphia and docking stations catching on fire and stalling issues in Los Angeles. When asked if any of the new buses had malfunctioned, caught on fire or have batteries melt, MCPS responded, “No.”

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A spokesperson for Highland told MoCo360 that there have not been an incidents of buses delivered by the company that have experienced safety issues such as the ones highlighted by the report from Fox 7 News in Baltimore. In addition, the spokesperson said that Highland did not operate buses in Philadelphia and Los Angeles where the safety incidents occurred.

Since February 2021, MCPS has cut two checks to a subsidiary owned and created by Highland Electric Fleets for the project, HET MCPS, LLC. One payment of $962,500 was sent to the subsidiary in 2022 and another payment of $3,330,250, according to MCPS Funding Accountability and Transparency database. The database makes public information about vendors that receive payments of $25,000 or more during a fiscal year.

Financial and legal troubles

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The MCPS Department of Transportation has in recent years landed in legal and financial troubles and so have companies that Highland Electric Fleets has partnered with to deliver the buses.

Proterra, the company which designs and manufactures electric buses with Highland Electric Fleets filed for bankruptcy in August. The company said in a press release that it plans to keep operating while working through bankruptcy.

Another financial and legal hurdle is a scandal which the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office said is “one of the worst financial crimes to ever victimize Montgomery County Public Schools.”

It stemmed from the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars by ex-MCPS assistant transportation director Charles Ewald. According to the State’s Attorney’s Office, from 2016 to 2021, former MCPS DOT director Todd Watkins, failed to “properly manage the contract for the purchases of school buses and the use of purchasing cards in his department such that [Edwald] … was able to steal over $320,000.”

In September, Ewald was sentenced to serve five years in prison for charges of felony theft. Todd Watkins, was also prosecuted and sentenced to 200 hours of community service and three years’ probation for misconduct in office related to the theft.

Board member Harris wrote in the email that there was “zero” relation between MCPS DOT’s legal troubles and the electric bus program delays.

“Did it look like this entire scheme was in trouble a while ago? Yes, it did,” Sartucci, the Montgomery County Parents’ Coalition member, said a day before the Oct. 12 board meeting. “But there has been absolutely no statement from the Board of Education or the superintendent as to what’s going on. There’s been no press releases. There’s been no announcement, no discussion at the board. Nothing. So, we have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”

The parent-run watchdog group has also kept track of MCPS past purchases of school buses, such as in 2022 when the district bought 64 diesel school buses. A MCPS spokesperson told Washington, D.C.-based FOX 5 News that the buses were to be used as special education buses and were purchased due to issues with the supply chain and the electric bus vendor not being able to fulfill those orders.

The group also pointed out that when MCPS launched the all-electric bus fleet initiative, the school district said the initiative would be “budget neutral.”  When the group inquired through an Maryland Public Information Act request, MCPS told them that there were no documents available regarding the financial models for the electrification of the school buses.

Diesel Pollution

In 2019 Maryland passed a bill that requires all new school buses purchased in the state to be zero-emission vehicles, meaning they cannot produce any form of exhaust from burning/combusting fuel. Electric buses are touted for being healthier not only for the environment but also for children’s health due to the elimination of diesel exhaust.

The Environmental Protection Agency says diesel emissions can lead to serious health conditions such as asthma and respiratory illnesses and can worsen existing heart and lung disease in children and the elderly.

According to a spokesperson for Highland, the electric buses that MCPS is operating have an 89% uptime rate in that the bus is fully operational 89% of the time – which is comparable to diesel, they said.

Clemans-Cope said that students and parents should know that children’s biggest exposure to pollution is from diesel school buses.

“Sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from diesel buses cause asthma, lung disease, and cancer,” she wrote. “… Electric buses are also essential for keeping MOCO on track for an 80% emissions reduction by 2027, and 100% by 2035 – and kids need that for a healthy future on this planet.”

Clemans-Cope said she hopes student member of the board Sami Saeed, McKnight and the school board will step up and address students concerns.

She also called on local elected leaders and politicians, such as Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 8) and County Council President Evan Glass (D-At-Large), who attended the electric bus ribbon cutting ceremony in October 2022, to help her and students who are concerned about the future of MCPS’ bus electrification program.

Sami Saeed, the student member of the board who is a senior at Richard Montgomery High School, said, “I [want] to say to students that the system that we have at MCPS is very complicated and sometimes we have to make tough decisions. But we are in every way, not just trying but we are being one of the most sustainable school systems in the nation.”

Saeed explained that in order for the school district to efficiently transport students to school next year, MCPS has to order the diesel buses so it won’t fall short in case the electric buses continue to be delivered behind schedule.

“Either we can gamble and hope the electric buses come on time – which again, they never have – and then leave a multitude of students without any buses, especially special education students without any buses. Or, we can put in an order for diesel buses to make sure that at least we’ll have some buses for students,” he said.

For now, MCPS is weighing their options with finding another manufacturer to supply MCPS’ electric bus fleet, according to Saeed. At the meeting Hull said that MCPS will be putting out a request for proposal (RFP) for other electric bus providers, but did not say when that would happen.

Board member Lynne Harris asked MCPS officials at the meeting to consider taking the new diesel buses off the road before the 12 year deadline in order to reduce the district’s carbon emissions “as expeditiously as we can.”

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