By Lorraine Connelly
Remember Ms. Frizzle’s words to her class on those imaginary school field trips aboard The Magic School Bus? “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”
Two Board of Education members have climbed aboard an exploratory process that could bring electric school buses to Wallingford — reducing carbon emissions, lowering fuel costs, and ensuring children have a more healthful ride to and from school.
Republican Autumn Allinson and Democrat Patrick Reynolds are spearheading a Board of Education subcommittee on electric vehicles. The subcommittee includes Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sal Menzo, Business Manager Dominic Barone, and representatives from Durham School Services, the district’s provider of transportation services. Durham also provides services for Stratford, Madison, Rocky Hill, Waterbury, and Milford.
Last fall, the full Board heard Durham’s presentation on a “zero-emission vehicle conversion plan” for the district. The time seems ripe for Wallingford to consider this conversion after Connecticut was allocated more than $55.7 million from the Volkswagen (VW) Environmental Mitigation Trust Fund which includes funding to replace diesel school buses.
Durham’s proposal is contingent upon receiving the VW grant. Its initial recommendation for the district, a conversion of 17 eligible buses, would constitute a multimillion-dollar investment for the company. To mitigate its investment risk, Durham sought a 10-year contract, an untenable proposal given the state’s prohibition of fixed-duration contracts — a point overlooked as Durham representatives pitched their plan.
The Board of Ed then asked Durham representatives to come up with a “zero-cost impact plan for the district” according to Barone.
Like Barone, Allinson, a business analyst for LEGO, has a clear view of the bottom line. As a new member of the Board, she brings to bear her experience as a former transportation specialist for a multinational consumer goods company. On one project she captured the savings on an electric conversion for spotter vehicles that transfer trailers from one truck to another. The site for which she performed her analysis, related Allinson, “now stands to recover its entire capital expenditure just in fuel and maintenance savings within five years.” She adds, “Conversion to electric vehicles does not have to be cost prohibitive. Wallingford has already worked hard to identify itself as a STEM town. Implementing electric buses could be another way to pull ourselves into the future by demonstrating that we care for the environment and the respiratory health of those using buses.”
The overall benefit of zero emissions to student health cannot be underestimated. According to a report by Harvard Medical School and the Center for Health and the Global Environment, preschool children experienced a 160% increase in asthma from 1980-1994. The last two decades saw the incidence of childhood asthma worldwide parallel the sharp increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, with asthma quadrupling in the U.S.
Reynolds, a 10-year veteran of the Board of Ed, has made the study of climate-related issues his life’s work. As a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan in 1986, he worked on NASA’s early climate model projections of CO2’s impact on global average temperatures. He taught high school science in New Britain for 18 years and now teaches part-time in Tunxis Community College’s STEAM and Advanced Manufacturing Program.
Says Reynolds, “I’m hoping that by introducing EV vehicles to Wallingford, we can also create an energy management career pathway for our students. The key is getting students hooked on green technology and then providing them with the design, fabrication, and manufacturing skills that will be in demand in the green technology workforce.”
With most proposals, the devil lies in the details. Is zero emissions at zero-cost even plausible? Reynolds shares some concerns, “Grant money might be available for some vehicles but how do we pay for the rest of the fleet? Will grant funds cover the infrastructure that is necessary to set up, including charging stations and piping in the ground? Who will own and control these? These are questions that will need to be sorted out.” The onus remains on Durham to come up with an amenable solution.
Last month, Middletown became the first municipality in the state to introduce its first all-electric school bus. DATTCO, the New Britain-based transportation company, paid $100,000 of the $270,000 price tag for a small Collins Type A type bus, with the rest funded by the VW Settlement Program. Middletown Superintendent of Schools Michael Connor proudly noted that innovation and creativity is what his school district prides itself on, adding, “This is the future of education, to be able to align our progressive academic program around innovation.”
Shouldn’t this be Wallingford’s future as well? Why not take the chance and explore? Ms. Frizzle would approve.
Lorraine Connelly is a Wallingford resident and writer.