About 50 Montgomery County Public Schools students, parents and environmental activists rallied outside of the Board of Education office in Rockville on Wednesday morning to urge superintendent Monifa McKnight and members of the school board to “keep their promises” regarding the district’s bus electrification program.
After the school board voted to approve a contract to purchase 90 diesel buses equipped with wheelchair lifts on Oct. 12, student climate activists and the Montgomery County Parents Coalition expressed concern about the district’s commitment to its bus electrification program that was announced in February 2021.
The total lifetime contract cost for the 326 electric buses is $186,684,990, according to an MCPS press release. The contract for the 90 diesel buses will cost the school system $14,749,919, according to a resolution superintendent McKnight introduced to the board.
Outside of the school board building, protesters expressed their frustration with the diesel bus purchase, blew on whistles and chanted, “What do we want? Clean buses! When do we want it? Now!”
Emily Lee, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, spoke to the crowd at the rally. Lee is also an intern with the BIPOC, or Black, indigenous, and other people of color, MoCo Green New Deal Internship. The high school internship program helps Black and brown students advocate for environmental justice in their communities.
Lee highlighted how the electric buses were a beacon of hope for climate-concerned students and represented a tangible way the school system was reducing carbon emissions and improving the health of children and communities of color.
In the United States, researchers have found that racial-ethnic minorities are exposed to “disproportionately high levels” of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) which is produced from the burning of fossil fuels such as diesel. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says if inhaled, particulate matter can cause serious health problems and get deep into the lungs and if they are fine enough, get into the bloodstream.
“Today, I urge MCPS to honor its promise. I urge them to reconsider their recent decision and prioritize the transition to electric school buses,” Lee said. “I urge each one of you, parents, teachers, community leaders and concerned citizens to join me in this call. Let’s hold our leaders accountable. Let’s remind them of the promises made not just for the sake of our environment, but for the future of us.”
At the rally, a mix of students and environmental advocates from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters (MLCV), Chispa (an offshoot of MLCV that focuses on Latinx communities) Moms Clean Air Force and Eco Madres joined the Green New Deal interns in their call for action.
Ramon Palencia-Calvo, the deputy executive director at the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, told MoCo360 that rally participants want to see the school system reverse the purchase of the diesel buses and ensure that all future bus contracts will be electric.
“We’re asking them to do due diligence and be proactive when problems with electric or with transportation arise, so they can take the measures and continue purchasing and incorporating electric buses instead of diesel,” he said.
Advocates for the electric buses said that they are also fighting for public health and are concerned students riding diesel buses will be exposed to diesel exhaust. The EPA says diesel exhaust 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.
Electric buses were touted by the school system for not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions and being healthier for the environment and air, but also for children on the buses.
“Our children are riding on diesel buses and are supposed to have options that don’t harm their developing bodies or exaggerate asthma and other respiratory issues and lead to cancer,” Lee said. “The burden of these emissions falls disproportionately on communities of color and low-income families already facing economic and health disparities. People who rely on buses every single day are inhaling these toxins without having a choice.”
For Regina Porras, a senior at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville with the Green New Deal interns, shared that the frustration with the diesel buses is personal.
“I’m really passionate about advocating for our community. Especially advocating for kids that are just like me,” she told MoCo360. “You know, Black and brown underrepresented minorities and also communities like neurodivergent children, because I do have family that are that are neurodivergent and are affected by this whole problem with the diesel gas emissions.”
At the end of the rally students and environmental advocates delivered letters to the school board members and superintendent. They initially planned to enter the school board building but were not allowed inside by security.
The letter commended the district for their robust commitment to the electric bus transition and encouraged school leaders to prioritize “enhances transparency and rigorous scrutiny in decisions that impact the health and academic outcomes of our student, particularly those relying on special education buses,” the letter stated.
The Montgomery County Board of Education did not immediately respond to MoCo360’s emails for request for comment.
As of the Oct. 12 approval to purchase the buses, MCPS has 1,410 buses in its fleet, 130 of which are electric, according to an MCPS spokesperson. Of all electric buses, 98 are in operation and transporting students.
The rest of the electric buses are moving through a registration process with the state as well as waiting on the installation of radios, Brian Hull – MCPS acting superintendent – explained at the October meeting.
Hull said that the school system has seen delays in electric bus deliveries from their Massachusetts-based contractor, Highland Electric Fleets, due to supply chain challenges.
“Any time you are on the cutting edge, the precipice of new technology like this there are going to be challenges,” Hull said at the meeting. “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.”
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