Naperville School District 203 doubles down on electric bus purchases   

Close up of front of school bus
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While it will remain a small fraction of the overall fleet, Naperville School District 203 will double the number of electric vehicle buses transporting students in the upcoming 2024-25 school year.

The board of education on Monday, May 6, unanimously approved a $2.88 million spending package for the year ahead that includes the purchase of four EV and 10 diesel-powered buses. The purchases will replace the oldest buses in the district’s fleet, and a portion of the total cost will be defrayed by trading in the old buses.   

Continuation of a pilot project for electric buses

District 203 is in the midst of a multi-year pilot of rolling out the EV buses that began this school year. After a series of delays that have been attributed to such factors as installing the equipment necessary to charge the buses, four EV buses began operation a month-and-a-half ago, after spring break.

The four additional EV buses purchased in the upcoming school year will bring District 203’s EV bus count to eight total. Officials estimate District 203 has a total of 130 buses in its fleet.

Board member Kristin Fitzgerald at the meeting discussed the District 203’s initial foray into trying EV buses, which began in earnest two years ago when a preliminary plan was drawn up.

“The recommendations are prefaced on the idea that we’re still in the process of determining the viability and the pros and cons, etc. of the buses and the experience of it — how the drivers are doing and if we’re having any issues with the charging,” Fitzgerald said.

‘Our own little vacuum’ 

District 203’s board deliberated about process and policy as the scope of the pilot project grows. Several board members spoke to the need of continuing the slow, methodical rollout of EV buses because comparables are difficult in the surrounding area.

District 203 is one of only a few in the region to outright own its bus fleet. Most districts outsource the service to private companies, which has led officials to the conclusion that the trial phase needs to be done in an insular manner.

“We really need to pilot this in our own little vacuum here,” board member Donna Wandke said. “We can’t have a big picture without understanding how they operate and how they work within our environment and within our community.” 

Long-term EV bus rollout still uncertain  

While District 203 is continuing its EV bus commitment through the 2024-25 school year, purchases beyond the year ahead remain uncertain.

While she voted in favor of the four additional EV bus purchases, board member Melissa Kelley Black questioned the rationale of purchasing additional ones while the logistics associated with the initial four in the fleet are still being worked out.

Bridges indicated District 203 is still in an information-gathering phase, reviewing coverage, logistics and generally understanding how charging works for buses.

“As a decision-maker, it’s hard to see the whole scope of the project,” Kelley Black said.

While efforts for a long-term plan are anticipated, Bridges said there are some issues that might make a full rollout of EV buses challenging — at least in the short term. 

“We have applied repeatedly for grants at both the federal and state level,” he said. “We’ve not been successful. A lot of those are based off need. Currently, we do not have a plan to transform the entire fleet to electric. We would be unable to do that. We must be able to maintain a diesel fleet, in order to take the longer trips and trips in the area that might not have charging capabilities.”    

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