Amherst council vote to buy polluting school bus criticized

  • Paula Guyette drops off elementary school students Wes Thompson, left, and Amelia Gruber in Easthampton in September 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2019 11:20:22 PM
Modified: 9/19/2019 11:20:09 PM

AMHERST — A decision by the Town Council to approve the purchase of a new gas- or diesel-powered school bus is being criticized by proponents of adding a second electric bus to the fleet.

By a 10-2 vote, the Town Council decided Tuesday to repurpose previous capital appropriations of about $90,000 so the new bus can be purchased. District 3 Councilor Patricia DeAngelis and District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont voted against the spending, with District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen abstaining.

A bus powered by gas or diesel would cost between $75,350 and $87,305, according to figures provided in a memo from School Finance Director Sean Mangano. An electric bus would cost at least $325,000. In addition to the significantly higher cost, school officials have argued that the new bus is needed immediately, before winter, for both field trips and some sports teams travel.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said at the meeting she is fully supportive of having municipal and school vehicles with reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but that the timing wasn’t right to focus on that.

“This is not the last time we will be discussing clean energy policy for the town of Amherst,” Griesemer said.

The swiftness with which the council’s decision was reached, with no time for public comment, was a concern for Russ Vernon-Jones, a retired educator who has written extensively about the connection between climate change and racism. In an email, Vernon-Jones said that he is disappointed in the council’s action, pointing to this week’s global climate strike in which people will demand governments take bold action to stop the climate crisis.

“And Amherst won’t even allow a full public discussion of the merits of buying an electric school bus, nor a full investigation of how it might be funded,” Vernon-Jones said. “For shame.”

Public comment is an option, but not required, at a special council meeting, Griesemer said. “I regret that we ran out of time last night and had to eliminate public comment,” she said.

The meeting was scheduled to only last 30 minutes, but was extended by about 10 minutes to accommodate three councilors participating remotely and periodic technical glitches with their connections.

DuMont had initially used her prerogative to postpone the purchase during the Sept. 9 meeting at which the bus was first discussed, and had hoped that the delay could answer some questions about getting an electric bus, observing that the world is facing a climate emergency.

An effort to postpone the discussion to the Sept. 23 meeting, at the request of At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, was defeated. Hanneke said the Tuesday meeting just happened to be scheduled due to a quirk in the council’s calendar.

“It would be very simple to just postpone it to the 23rd,” DuMont said during that discussion.

But District 4 Councilor Stephen Schreiber said the courtesy would be to decide the matter. He was joined by five other councilors in opposing the postponement, with Griesemer abstaining. That 6-6 vote forced the council to take an up or down vote.

Although DuMont contends the council could have sought information about whether it would be possible to rent a bus in the interim, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that the option of buying an electric bus was not before the Town Council. The choices, he said, were between approving the spending or nixing the spending.

District 3 Councilor George Ryan said the town needs a plan to combat climate change going forward, but there is too little time to get answers needed. “Winter is coming and we need a bus,” Ryan said.

Griesemer said after the meeting that the Energy and Climate Action Committee will soon develop comprehensive plans for how the town approaches climate change, including how it handles vehicle purchases. Currently, there is no policy related to buying electric or hybrid vehicles.

“I think it is very important that we look at the town’s climate action goals and the implementation of the goals as a whole and not as ‘one-offs’ each time an issue comes before the council,” Griesemer said.

DuMont said an electric bus would have saved fuel and maintenance costs. Her hope is that the town will apply in the coming second round of grants available from the $75 million settlement from Volkswagen for Clean Air Act violations.

“In the recent round towns could receive 80 percent of the cost of the bus up to $500,000,” she said.

“Transitioning from gas to electric vehicles is an obvious step Amherst should take to respond to the urgency of the climate crisis,” DuMont added.

In his memo to the council, Mangano said the school district has investigated seeking money from the Volkswagen settlement and anticipates pursuing these grants in the future.

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