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An electric school bus sits outside Denver's East High School on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, when state leaders, including Gov. Jared Polis, announced 13 Colorado schools and districts that will be able to invest in new electric school buses with a mix of state and federal grant dollars. The state will more than double its fleet of electric school buses as it adds 67 new buses within the next year and a half. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado will more than double the size of its electric school bus fleet through a mix of state and federal funding, lurching forward in a statewide effort to replace loud and costly diesel-powered buses with cleaner vehicles that save on repairs and reduce kids’ exposure to pollutants.

An estimated 67 new electric school buses will roll along Colorado roads within the next year and a half, adding to the 52 electric school buses that have been paid for, ordered or are already clocking miles, according to Alex Simon, a public health advocate at CoPIRG. The statewide advocacy organization is active in public health and consumer issues.

The expansion of big yellow electric school buses is a marker of progress as Colorado has reached “a crisis point” with air pollution, Simon said. But the state still has another 95% of school buses to convert.

“I think it’s a really important start,” Simon said. “It’s always hardest to do the first 5% or 10%, and then others will follow.”

The new electric school buses will replace aging buses in 13 districts and charter schools through the first round of grant funding under the Colorado Electric School Bus Grant Program, which Colorado lawmakers created last year with $65 million. The funds give districts the financial footing to afford electric school buses, which can each cost $400,000, compared with the $100,000 price tag attached to diesel school buses. The money also can be used to purchase components like meters and transformers, which bring power to district charging stations.

An electric school bus sits outside Denver’s East High School on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, when state leaders, including Gov. Jared Polis, announced 13 Colorado schools and districts that will be able to invest in new electric school buses with a mix of state and federal grant dollars. The buses will replace aging diesel school buses, saving on repairs and reducing kids’ exposure to harmful pollutants. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

The districts and charter schools benefiting from $24 million in grants in the first year of funding, which includes about $21 million in state funds, are Boulder Preparatory Charter High School, Boulder Valley School District, Community Leadership Academy Inc., Denver Public Schools, Fountain Fort Carson School District 8, Monte Vista School District, Poudre School District, Sheridan School District 2, Steamboat Springs School District, Summit School District RE-1, Thompson School District 1-JT, Weld County School District 6 and West Grand School District 1-JT.

Among the districts and charter schools the state prioritized in dispersing grant dollars were those with a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch — a federal metric of poverty — as well as those in rural communities and in areas that need to reduce ozone pollution to meet federal standards. Areas facing high ozone pollution are concentrated in the Denver metro area and the North Front Range.

With the grant funding, which also includes nearly $3 million from the Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Colorado school districts and charter schools are now investing in at least one electric school bus, according to a report from the CoPIRG Foundation.

“This transition is rapidly catching on,” Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday during a news conference announcing the 13 districts and charter schools outside Denver’s East High School. “We are accelerating it with these grants.”


Polis said the state grants will add wiggle room to district budgets so schools can spend more money on students and classrooms, including raising teacher pay and reducing class sizes.

“You really see school districts across the state — mountain, rural, urban, suburban — every kind of school district is really looking at this tremendous kind of opportunity to free up funds for the classroom and help contribute to cleaner air,” he said.

Polis added that it no longer makes sense for districts to purchase new diesel buses.

“Electric school buses are the future of transportation for our schools, for our communities,” he said. “And this round of funding helps bring that future to us earlier.”

Another major reason why Colorado is pushing to introduce more electric school buses to neighborhoods centers on the health of students, particularly those who have asthma, and bus drivers.

Diesel exhaust is a carcinogen and can impact how the brain functions, according to a study published by public health journal “Environmental Health.” 

Diesel pollution is also associated with higher rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory disorders and premature death, Juan Roberto Madrid, a clean transportation and energy policy advocate for GreenLatinos in Colorado, said in a statement. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit works to change environmental policies to improve the health and well-being of Latino communities and other communities of color.

Kids from communities of color as well as kids with disabilities, students in rural communities and kids from low-income homes often ride for longer stretches on school buses than many of their peers, so they’re typically exposed to harmful pollutants from diesel more often, according to information from the Electric School Bus Initiative, which aims to electrify all US. school buses by 2030.

And kids riding school buses and standing near school buses before they take off breathe in the toxic air.

Diesel buses also pose serious threats to the environment, with school buses across the state producing close to 72,500 tons of greenhouse gasses each year, according to CoPIRG.

Additional grants from state and federal funds will be available to districts in the future, which means more districts will be able to apply for their own electric school bus, particularly after only about 7% of Colorado districts applied to the grant program, according to the CoPIRG Foundation’s report.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, does not know how much grant funding it will receive, but Albert Samora, executive director of transportation, hopes it can purchase 20 electric buses — 10 this school year and another 10 next year.

The interior of one of Denver Public Schools’ electric school buses, which hit the road in fall of 2022. The state’s largest school district has three electric school buses and aims to add 30 more to its fleet over the next five years. Electric buses are said to be quieter than conventional buses and can run about 50-70 miles on a charge. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Those buses would position the district to meet its goal of rolling out 30 electric school buses over the next five years, equal to about 12% of its entire fleet. The district currently operates 319 buses, three of which are electric.

DPS spends millions of dollars on diesel, Samora said. On average, a diesel school bus will cost the district about 67 cents to 80 cents per mile, compared with the 20 cents per mile that an electric school bus costs.

Supply chain complications are slowing down the district’s turn to electric vehicles, he said, with Xcel Energy in particular struggling to get necessary components, such as meters and transformers, to district facilities for charging stations.

Samora said the district will apply more pressure to suppliers so that it can outfit its facilities to handle a few dozen electric buses.

“I think we’re going to find out whether the system can handle us doing that,” he said. “We don’t know what’s realistic till we push forward, right? And so we’re going to push forward as hard as the funding will allow us.”

He remains most concerned about students and the pollution that the district’s 300-plus buses spread across neighborhoods.

“Those students will not be exposed to diesel exhaust,” Samora said, “and then we won’t expose the city to as many vehicles running around the city that are also running (on) diesel.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...