Editor's Note: Student journalists from more than a dozen schools across Vermont contributed to the Climate Report Card series, reporting on their schools' systems for heat, electricity, transportation, food, and climate education. Each article in the series collects a handful of accounts from participating schools; together these stories show that our school communities are working hard to be more energy efficient, and that we face complex trade-offs in seeking to reduce our carbon footprint. The project does not claim to be a complete or authoritative evaluation: its core purpose is the students' civic engagement. Special thanks to Mariah Keagy her colleagues at VEEP for their generous collaboration.
The Underground Workshop's Climate Report Card series was compiled, organized and edited by a team of student editors: Anika Turcotte, Montpelier High School; Adelle Macdowell, Lamoille High School; Anna Hoppe, Essex High School; Mei Elander, Enosburg Falls High School; and Cecilia Luce, Thetford Academy.
The distance barrier: Brattleboro Union High School
A closer look at bus routes: Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union
Obstacles to Electric Buses at Essex High School
Electric Buses at Bellows Free Academy Fairfax
The Late Bus at U-32
by Cecilia Luce, Thetford Academy
Vermont may be seen as a ‘green’ state, but its transportation systems certainly are not. Fossil fuels power 94% of transportation in Vermont, which accounts for 40% of statewide carbon emissions.
Due to the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), by 2025, Vermont is legally required to reduce carbon emissions by 26% from 2005 levels. By 2030, emissions must be lowered by 40% from the 1990 level.
The Vermont Climate Council initially turned to the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program (TCI-P) as a way to reduce emissions. Then, in November, 2021, two states–Massachusetts and Connecticut–withdrew from the program. Without their participation, the initiative fell apart, leaving Vermont in need of another option.
Officials strongly recommended the TCI-P because of the specific ways that it would help the state move towards sustainability. In theory, it would have reduced emissions in participating regions by 26% over the next decade. The Climate Council is now hoping to find substitutes in order to meet the GWSA standards.
The inability to access public transit throughout Vermont could make it exceptionally difficult for the state to reduce emissions. Schools are an excellent example of the transportation challenges.
Because of the large portion of Vermont schools that are located in rural areas, many students are unable to rely on public transportation (or other sustainable options, such as walking or biking). Some schools are working towards establishing environmentally-friendly and accessible ways to get to school, but financial constraints have made it difficult to progress.
However, the Climate Council has a few ideas to offer solutions to the economic issue. $30 million in funding has been allocated towards incentivizing electric vehicles, and $30 million is going towards public transportation systems.
The Distance Barrier: Brattleboro Union High School
by Ava Whitney and Fiona DesJardins
Brattleboro is a town in southern Vermont with a population of around 12,000 that borders New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The town's high school also serves students from many smaller neighboring towns, including Putney, Dummerston, Guilford, Marlboro, Wilmington, Whitingham, Westminster, Vernon, Halifax and others. The students from these “sending towns” commute long distances each day to school and back.
The Moover is a Southeast Vermont Transportation bus serving Windham county. It is one of the only public transportation options available in these rural areas. These cow-print buses drive through Dover, Wilmington, Marlboro, and other towns, and are available for distant BUHS students. The bus provides several routes, and provided 4,426 rides last year.
Junior Chloe Chase took the Moover to Brattleboro Area Middle School when she lived in Dover.
“There were a bunch of stops," Chase said. "For riding it in the afternoon, it came later than any bus so I had to stay at school for a while.” Chase estimates that it took around an hour total to get home from school, due to all the stops.
The Moover offers transportation to students in multiple schools, in multiple different locations. “They had to give us a larger bus because so many kids took it," Chase said, "and if you didn’t get on at the beginning, you didn’t have a seat. You just stood in the aisle.”
Bridget Schneider is another junior who lives in Wilmington Vermont, about a 30-45 minute drive from school, and longer during mud season. Prior to high school, she attended a closer school, but she entered in a lottery, granting her the opportunity to attend BUHS. The transition to this new school included the logistics of getting there and back. Her freshman year, she took the Moover.
"They tried to make it strictly student-based, but some of The Moover drivers would pick up random people from the side of the road," Schneider said. "It wasn’t clean, I felt uncomfortable, and then COVID hit. So I’ve had to drive for the past two years."
For underclassmen who don’t have their licenses, there are fewer transportation options. Orion Masterson is a freshman who lives in Marlboro, Vermont, around 20 minutes from school. He previously attended Marlboro elementary and middle school, and currently takes the Moover to BUHS.
“It’s pretty solid," Masterson said. "Obviously I would rather drive myself, but for someone who can’t drive I think it's fine. I’m really excited to get my license.”
Junior Althea Holzapfel drives herself from Marlboro to school in her own car, and describes her daily drive on dirt roads as “a bit tedious and rugged.”
“Around here I don’t know many [options of environmentally friendly transportation]," Holzapfel said. "People live pretty rurally. It can be hard to carpool and invest in cleaner transportation. You really need a rugged car to get to places.”
The students in sending towns get to school through bad weather, treacherous conditions, and mud season. It can be hard to consider carbon efficiency when transportation is already a hassle.
Micheal Auerbach has been teaching science at BUHS since 2001. He is the faculty advisor for the BUHS Environmental Club.
“Honestly, if you’ve got a kid in Dover who has to take the hour-and-a-half Moover back home, and you give them a chance to drive in a car, I can see why they’re going to do that," Auerbach said. "It also makes it hard to carpool. We are too small for a good public transportation system, and we are too far flung to do a lot of ride sharing.”
BUHS does provide school buses shared by the entire WSESD-VT school district, for students who live in Brattleboro, and towns close by like Guilford, and Dummerston. The district uses F. M. Kuzmeskus, a Massachusetts-based bus company. The company expanded into Vermont in 2018 and supplies the district with 17 full-sized buses. Mike Doyle is the current Vice President of F. M. Kuzmeskus, which was founded by his great-grandfather almost 100 years ago.
“The diesel industry has changed in the last decade,"Doyle said. "They’ve overhauled all of the diesel engine emission standards. We have a newer fleet up there [in Vermont]; they’re all 2019s. They are the cleanest version of these diesel engines. Much cleaner than, say, 15 years ago.”
Doyle added that nationwide diesel standards get stricter each year, which drives up the cost of fuel. “Fuel is always a major expense, especially now," he said. "Each full-sized bus is equipped with a 100 gallon fuel tank which gets approximately 7 miles per gallon.”
Doyle said the company is interested in the emerging trends around electric vehicles; however there are currently too many unknowns around the electric motor and the battery life. The price of a fully electric bus is 4 times the cost of a regular diesel school bus.
“These electric buses are the future,” Doyle stated. “They have to be.”
Brattleboro residents live closer to school and have more opportunities to use carbon efficient transportation than those who commute. Many bikers take to the streets once it gets warm enough. Abby Mnookin is a Brattleboro resident and climate activist. She is an avid biker, and bikes her kids to elementary school each morning. Her family loves to bike and they have biked over 6,000 miles on their 2 electric bikes.
“If it's possible for people to bike more, it's such a great way to connect with yourself, your family and the outdoors," Mnookin said. "I think we need more bike infrastructure; more bike lanes, more flashing lights and signs. We need support for that ,so that it feels doable and safer. A lot of people just don’t feel safe biking.”
Mnookin is an experienced organizer who has worked for 350 Vermont. She often gives presentations to Brattleboro students about how youth can help fight the climate crisis.
“Oftentimes it takes a movement," she said, "so the more kids that are walking and biking to school, then there will be more camaraderie.”
Django Grace is a youth climate activist in Brattleboro and a sophomore at BUHS. He is on the Brattleboro town energy council, a member of the Vermont Youth Lobby, and works with many local organizations and various forms of activism to combat climate change. He is also an avid biker, and bikes to school each day, even in the winter.
“I believe it’s a very tangible thing I can do to lower emissions in my life, and it also sends a message to people in cars," Grace said. "I hope they see me and stop to think about transportation, and I hope I inspire them to get out of a car and onto a bike.”
He says that a lot of people simply accept driving because it is convenient, and nobody even considers alternative modes of transportation.
“The idea that everyone needs to be isolated when they go from place to place is actually really primitive if you think about it,” Grace said.
He believes that everyone can do their part to lower their personal carbon emissions.
“Nobody is going to save the world by pedaling a couple miles," he said, "but by doing that they have made the choice to place themselves in the movement, and to add positive momentum. It’s contagious.”
A closer look at bus routes: Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union
by Mei Elander, Enosburg Falls High School
Morgan Daybell is the business manager for Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union (FNESU), and led a transportation study conducted in September of 2021. The study looked at four categories: the consolidation of bus routes; extending transportation to pre-K students; providing more transportation after school; and expanding the eligibility of students who can take the bus.
“We hadn’t done any really comprehensive look at transportation since we were merged under Act 46," Daybell said. "So we’d kind of inherited all these transportation routes that were really set up when Enosburg was separate and Montgomery was separate and Berkshire was separate.”
Daybell explained that students in the Northern Mountain Valley District currently have school choice. However, due to the set up, only Berkshire and Montgomery students have access to a bus that goes to Enosburg and Richford High School. “...[W]e don’t really have the ability, currently, to take a kid from Bakersfield who wants to go to Richford High School and get them all the way there by bus.”
Tim Ammon of Decisions Support Group (DSG), a consulting firm, presented the 2021 transportation study in an FNESU board meeting in February. One of the challenges Ammon mentioned was the “large geographic area….Nothing is evenly spread out,” which can make finding direct and speedy routes a barrier.
The study found that there were twenty two bus routes in total. Route times averaged seventy minutes for afternoon and mornings. Three are ninety minutes and fourteen are longer than sixty.
Ammon explained that given the area that must be covered, the smaller number of routes, and the frequent stops made, this graph is not surprising. Still, the study showed that buses seemed to be making an excessive number of stops; around 1,000 stops for only about 800 students. This could be explained by reasons such as split custody, Ammon said.
In the current bus system there are around 1400 seats available and approximately 800 students which means that around 52% of seats are being used. A manufacturer's capacity of a bus is 72 seats, or three students per seat.
Another challenge with implementing these plans is putting them in the contract with the bus company. Mr. Daybell explained that few companies bid and so the options of choosing are limited. A bid, in this situation, is when schools present their schedule and bus companies make offers to the school.
However, when the Supervisory Union contract went out to bid last in 2017 Terricel was the only company that submitted a bid. The study collected data that the FNESU board will review to see if they will incorporate some of the pieces into the next contract.
Obstacles to Electric Buses at Essex High School
by Gianni Maffessanti
Recently, there have been advancements in electric vehicles, allowing buses to use electric engines. Why hasn’t Essex High School invested in these electric vehicles for its bus fleet?
The Hive interviewed the Essex Westford School District Transportation Manager, Jamie Smith. Essex High School has sixteen different bus routes that serve it and a total of 26 for the district. Additionally, some students choose to use public transportation, which is free for EWSD attendees.
“Currently with electric and hybrid vehicles, the primary way that school districts obtain electric vehicles is through a grant that's distributed through VTrans, [the] Vermont Department of Transportation,"Smith said. "They have money that came from a Volkswagen settlement.”
These funds can be used to offset the cost of an electric vehicle to make it similar to a gas or diesel vehicle, which can help encourage schools to use more electric buses in their fleets. The cost of a regular, diesel school bus is around $80,000 to $100,000. The price of an electric bus can be as much as $300,000. The grant can offset that price.
In order to access the grant, the school district must meet certain requirements, including that it must have a bus that is older and ready to be retired. Currently, Essex High School does not have any buses that qualify for this grant, and the district only has 16 buses total.
Another issue is that the electric buses are not made in the sizes that the school currently wants. “The vehicle that we wanted this year is built on a heavy duty truck frame,"Smith said. "So we wanted a bus that would hold normally about 30 passengers and they were only making the electric vehicles in ones that would hold 23 passengers.”
Around 580 students ride a school bus every day across the district. Overall the district has 4,500 students and around 1,300 are registered for transportation with the school district. Another issue with students' access to busing is that in Essex Junction most students don’t have access to school-owned buses.
The district just does not have the resources to have busing everywhere. Because they do not have enough drivers, the district had to remove some routes. Smith said that Essex Junction has much better walking infrastructure, so they are more focused on areas with little walking infrastructure for buses.
Since the majority of students are not registered to ride the bus, many drive to school. Smith pointed out that despite a diesel bus having an 8-10 mpg and gasoline being 9-10 mpg, that is much better than 30 cars driving to school, so increasing the number of students using school transportation at all would have a positive impact.
Another recent project will hopefully make it possible for schools to receive grants for electric buses. With successful implementation of these initiatives, and effective statewide organization, the GWSA standards will be far easier to reach.
Electric Buses at Bellows Free Academy Fairfax
by Madison Lutz, with reporting from Genevieve Collum and Adeline Wood
At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, BFA Fairfax was fortunate to obtain two electric buses, which have been in operation since, bringing children to and from school. BFA Fairfax's director of transportation, Patsy Parker, and middle school principal Justin Brown worked together in a two-year process of paperwork and applications to join the statewide pilot program designed to determine whether or not the electric vehicles are practical for year round use around the state of Vermont as well as promote sustainable changes. The buses were inspected and registered back in August of 2021.
Justin Brown said BFA was eligible for the electric bus pilot program, because “a number of years ago Volkswagen was sued by states because they lied about their emissions, with our state winning a settlement with Volkswagen. The state in partnership with the organization offered a competitive grant process and we were one of the three school districts in the state of Vermont that won electric buses for incorporation into our fleet. The buses were purchased by Fairfax at a substantially reduced price through this pilot program."
Brown explained how charging the buses is currently working. He said that when the grant was awarded, it included a plan for reconfiguring charging stations, requiring a wire from the pole and installing the charging stations in partnership with Green Mountain Power. All electricity for these buses is currently being pulled directly off of the grid provided by Green Mountain Power.
A major component of the pilot program is collecting and compiling data, which is then reported directly to Green Mountain Power. This data includes the length of time buses require to charge, the amount of power they use, and the duration of time they stay charged. This data also includes measurements of fuel costs, maintenance costs, and annual greenhouse gas emissions, which are expected to be approximately 97% lower than diesel-powered buses.
The electric buses still require a small amount of diesel to run the heater. The impact of temperature changes in bus battery life has also been monitored, generally finding that colder temperatures have the most significant impact, shortening battery range.
Director of transportation Patsy Parker explained that the drivers were unsure of how to operate these heaters throughout the cold seasons, so the buses have been completely green this far, by accident. Moving forward there will be a small amount of diesel usage, but only during the winter.
Feedback from the community and wider public has been overwhelmingly positive. Parker said “it’s either they absolutely love it, or they absolutely hate it. We’ve had some issues with the buses, especially in the colder temperatures when they’ve had to be towed to the garage. People see them being towed and assume that they are junk, when in actuality if they aren’t working it is because the bus is struggling with the temperature, or there is something that needs to be changed or improved that wasn’t anticipated”.
Parker understands people’s skepticism about the electric buses, especially in Vermont’s generally cooler climate and rural roads; however, she reminds people that the program’s purpose is to collect data in order to find ways of improving electric bus transportation for the future. BFA has been working closely with the manufacturer to make improvements and changes to the electric buses so that they can be used successfully in any season.
Currently, these electric buses are using electricity from the grid, provided by Green Mountain Power, which requires the use of greenhouse gasses. Moving forward, however, members of the Climate Action Club at BFA are hoping to propose the use of solar panels to power the charging stations for the electric buses as well as the rest of the facilities at the bus garage.
Throughout the school year, the BFA Climate Action Club, led by senior Charlotte Wood, has worked together and with the support of Vermont Energy Education Program (VEEP) to plan and execute projects designed to combat climate change and promote environmentally sustainable behavior. The club has held community clothing and book swaps, conducted fundraising for their club to support projects, helped to organize student greening up activities, created and sent out surveys to students to support and guide projects, and have been working on obtaining onsite solar.
For several years now, BFA Fairfax has had a net metering agreement with the company Green Lantern Solar, allowing for the school district to purchase renewable power from offsite solar and promote growth in the renewable energy market. The climate action club has met and collaborated with Green Lantern over the past couple years, and Green Lantern recently gave permission to overlook the exclusivity clause of the contract, for the purpose of obtaining onsite solar.
A couple weeks ago, Mariah Keagy, an Energy Action Programs Manager and Energy Educator from VEEP, and Mike McCarthy, a solar project consultant from SunCommon and a Vermont State Representative, met with Charlotte Wood, Laura Heil, a science teacher at BFA and advisor of the climate action club, and other members of the club to discuss the solar project and take a look at the site they are looking at for solar panels.
The solar project would be constructed on the roof of the bus garage building and would be used to generate electricity for the garage utilities as well as the chargers for the electric buses. After surveying the proposed solar location, McCarthy produced a project proposal with no upfront cost, which will be presented to the school board over the summer of 2022.
Although there have been many bumps in the road on this electric bus journey, BFA Fairfax will continue running the buses and gathering information for the pilot program over the next school year, finding more and more areas of improvement for this forward-thinking, greener way of transportation.
The Late Bus at U-32
by Amy Felice
The U-32 late buses travel 6.5 miles per gallon. The trip distance of the late bus through Calais and East Montpelier is 28 miles long. On a recent Wednesday, three kids got on.
That’s over a gallon per kid, per trip.
So, is it worth it? And why don’t more people take the late bus?
The U-32 school district was founded in 1971. Previously, all of the students in our district would attend Montpelier High School. MHS had extracurriculars, but lacked transportation to get kids home afterward making it difficult for many students to participate in sports. The late buses at U-32 were a way to make after school activities accessible to all students.
Today the school has three late buses, and they’re rarely more than half full, some of them closer to a quarter.
There are several reasons students choose to drive home. The common thread is convenience.
“Sometimes I have to bring my bike,” said Jane Miller-Arsenault, an athlete on the track team. “I take it to and from [the school] every day… in the back of my car.”
She explained that the track team’s practice runs until five, a recent change due to the extended school day. But the late bus still leaves at 4:30. This means the kids who need to catch the bus have to leave practice a half-hour before it ends, missing an entire quarter of practice so they can get home.
Depending on what activity they participate in, some students can leave significantly earlier. “I'm a sprinter,” said Greta Little, “so… if I'm getting injured or I start feeling something in my leg, I'm done.” But once she’s done running, there’s no use in waiting for the late bus to come when she could just drive home immediately.
Many of the other high school extracurriculars have a different problem: activities like baseball, lacrosse, softball, and sometimes theater, don’t even start practice until 4:30, so riding the late bus isn’t even an option.
For many students, it’s easier for their parents to pick them up after practice, depending on where they live. For some, the bus ride takes double the time it would take to drive a car.
Living situations also affect the convenience of the late buses. Otis Loga mentioned that because his parents lived in two different places, it was easier for him to just drive himself. “I have a lot of junk I need to bring back and forth between two houses,” he said.
Another huge problem is that the late buses don’t stop at people’s houses, but at intersections or main gathering spots. Oftentimes, students are dropped off a couple miles or more from their homes. Otis also said the late bus doesn’t have enough stops- he doesn’t always need to get off at the roundabout, but it’s the closest thing to taking him home. It’s simpler for him to drive himself.
Driving home from practice is convenient. Many students agreed that there’s more freedom with a car. They can run errands, pick up things they need, drive people around, go get a creemee- not so easy on a school bus.
by Adelle Macdowell, Lamoille Union High School
- How can Vermont strengthen its public transportation network in rural areas?
- How can school districts balance efficiency and equity/accessibility when it comes to underutilized bus routes?
- Are the target carbon emissions goals set by the GWSA achievable for Vermont?
- How can inefficient bus routes be consolidated and streamlined?
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