Lake Tahoe Unified School District votes to buy diesel buses despite public outcry

Nick Exline passionately addresses the school board Friday, Dec. 13, 2019.
Laney Griffo/Tahoe Daily Tribune

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — A heated discussion about buses dominated the first part of the Lake Tahoe Unified School District board meeting Friday night. 

Many of the district’s school buses need replacement, including 14 buses that have over 200,000 miles. 

Included in the consent agenda were items regarding buses. The first was the purchase of 24-passenger electric bus. The cost of the bus and infrastructure was mostly covered by a grant from the California Energy Commission so the district owes just $4,600 for the bus. 

The second item, the point of contention, was the purchase of four diesel buses which would cost the district $780,000 paid over 10 years. 

Because these items were put in the consent agenda, they would not have been up for discussion.

Climate activist Nick Exline, members from the Climate Action Club at South Tahoe High School and other community members spent the days prior to the meeting getting signatures in support of looking at electric buses rather than diesel. 

Grant money is available through the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust for California for emissions reducing efforts. Liberty Utilities also has grant money for electric vehicle infrastructure. Exline also had volunteers from the 100% Renewable Committee who were willing to write the grant applications for the district for free. 

Exline and the other activists were upset with the district for moving towards diesel rather than considering the electric buses. They were also upset with the district for putting the item on the consent agenda where the community couldn’t weigh in on the issue. 

The meeting on Friday, Dec. 13 was standing room only, packed with people wanting to comment on the buses. Because of the number of comments, the board decided to move the item to discussion and action. 

“All we’re asking here tonight is to review the information we have,” Exline said to the board. 

Many parents and students addressed the board in favor of moving away from diesel, towards electric. 

“We have the chance to be a pioneer school district,” said Logan Chapman, co-founder of the school’s climate club. 

John Friedrich Program Manager, Clean Energy, Efficiency and E-Mobility at Liberty Utilities also addressed to board. 

Andrea Salazar Chief Business & Operations Officer presented the district’s reasoning behind the diesel buses. 

The main factor in the decision is the type of bus that needs to be replaced. The trip buses take students to sporting events or field trips outside of the basin. Those buses take nearly 550 trips per year and will go as far as Elko which is 342 miles away. 

The district is concerned that electric buses don’t have the battery life to take long trips and the lack of infrastructure for charging in rural Nevada would strand students in remote places. 

“In today’s world, it’s not feasible to use electric vehicles for trip buses,” said Salazar. 

The board, with the exception of Bonnie Turnbull who attended the meeting remotely via phone, echoed Salazar’s concern about lack of infrastructure and research of electric buses in cold, mountainous regions. All the board members sited student safety as one of their main concerns.

“The public isn’t as informed as the board is on this issue,” said board member Barbara Bannar. 

The board did promise to consider electric buses to replace route buses, the buses that travel around town. 

Turnbull was in favor of delaying the vote while the board gathered more information on the capabilities of electric buses. She also reminded the board that they’ve made promises to be green several times before.

“We can’t continue to contradict our own goals,” Turnbull said. “We have to follow through on our plan and our promise to the community.” 

She put forward a motion to delay the vote but did not get a second. The board voted to purchase the diesel buses with Turnbull being the only nay vote. 

Exline and the students stormed out of the meeting room. Exline addressed the students outside. 

“I want you to understand how social change works,” Exline said. “They are going to lie to you. You have to remember that and work hard and kick them in the ass.”

Chapman, who was a little calmer than the other people there said, “I’m glad they’re considering electric for the route buses, it just needs to happen sooner.”

One bus driver for the district, Ken Jacobs, was happy with the board’s decision, saying the new diesel buses will have a better emissions system. 

The board did decide to use the small electric bus they are purchasing as a test bus to see if electric buses are feasible at Lake Tahoe. 

Laney Griffo is a reporter with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun.

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