PHOENIX — More than four dozen Arizona school districts, including Casa Grande Elementary, are getting new school buses at no cost to taxpayers.
The tab for the 142 new buses is coming from the state’s $57 million share of a nationwide settlement with Volkswagen over the sale of its so-called “clean-diesel’’ vehicles. Gov. Doug Ducey had ultimate authority on how to divide the cash, within certain court-approved guidelines.
The Casa Grande Elementary School District will be getting six new buses from the settlement. The Eloy Elementary School District will also be getting an additional bus, as will the Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District in eastern Pinal County.
More districts may benefit in the future. The governor’s office said it is still reviewing the applications from another 63 districts to see if they qualify.
According to Michael Cruz, CGESD communications and marketing specialist, the new buses will be incorporated as part of the normal transportation fleet.
The issue of replacing older buses was discussed at the October CGESD board meeting in which Tom Wohlleber, the district’s chief financial officer, gave a report on expenditures from the current budget override.
Wohlleber said in October that each bus costs $125,000 and added that the need is there because the district fell behind in replacing its fleet after funding dried up with the state budget cuts caused by the Great Recession.
“Now that we are infusing more newer vehicles into our fleet, our operational costs will begin to come down,” Wohlleber told PinalCentral in October, “because these newer vehicles are more fuel efficient and they have a warranty for two years.”
Darla Johnson, director of transportation, said Wednesday the district purchased 20 new buses last year and 20 new buses this year to replace part of the aged fleet for existing routes.
“The new buses will be replacing buses that have caused delays due to mechanical issues not to mention lack of and/or poor operating air conditioning,” she said in an email.
With the additional buses from the VW settlement, Johnson said the majority of the CGESD fleet will be less than one year old.
What’s getting the state all this cash is a decision by Volkswagen in 2016 to settle a lawsuit about the marketing of vehicles under the VW, Audi and Porsche labels as having lower pollution.
It turned out that really wasn’t the case.
Instead, VW engineers had installed a “defeat device,’’ programmed to go into a low-emission mode during testing but then spew out pollutants at much higher — and illegal — levels when actually on the road to improve performance.
VW eventually pleaded guilty to three felonies, including defrauding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The company agreed to $4.3 billion in penalties and another $4.9 billion to address pollution from the supposedly low-emission diesel vehicles.
Arizona’s $59 million share was not unrestricted. Instead, it had to be spent on projects to reduce emissions of oxides of nitrogen, the very pollutants the VW vehicles were spitting out above permissible levels.
That’s where the plan for new school buses comes in.
State officials figure that for each aging school bus replaced, those with at least 100,000 miles, emissions of nitrogen oxides will be reduced by nearly 1.4 tons over that vehicle’s anticipated 12-year life.
And Dawn Wallace, the governor’s education adviser, said 80 percent of the money awarded is going to school districts in areas which already are in danger of violating clean-air standards.
The decision of how to spend the money is not without controversy.
Last year Chispa Arizona, an arm of the League of Conservation Voters, submitted petitions with more than 16,000 names to Ducey requesting that he use the money to replace the aging diesel buses with zero-emission vehicles. They argued that is the only way to ensure that school children are not exposed to dirty air and cancer-causing pollutants from tailpipe emissions.
But Ducey’s office opted not to replace the diesel buses with electric vehicles.
Aides to the governor said the decision starts with the fact that fewer than 50 electric school buses could be purchased for the same price as more than 150 conventionally fueled vehicles. And, by extension, they said that replacing that many diesel-powered buses with new ones results in about 36 percent less overall pollution than buying fewer zero-emission buses.
Oh, and don’t look for those old school buses to be sold or given away. The settlement requires that vehicles being replace be made inoperable through a hole in the engine block and a cut in the frame.
Staff Writer Rodney Haas contributed to this story.
District — Number of buses
Aguila Elementary — 1
Alhambra Elementary — 6
American Basic School dua Burke Basic School — 1
Ask Creek Elementary — 1
Beaver Creek Elementary — 1
Bowie Unified — 1
Buckeye Elementary — 3
Cartwright Elementary — 5
Casa Grande Elementary — 6
Concho Elementary — 1
Congress Elementary — 1
Cottonwood-Oak Creek — 1
Crane Elementary — 3
Douglas Unified — 2
Eloy Elementary — 1
Flowing Wells Unified — 2
Gadsden Elementary — 4
Holbrook Unified — 4
Isaac Elementary — 2
Kingman Unified — 10
Littleton Elementary — 2
Maine Consolidated — 1
Mammoth-San Manuel Unified — 1
Mary C. O’Brien Accommodation — 1
Mayer Unified — 1
McNary Elementary — 1
Miami Unified — 1
Mingus Union High School — 1
Mobile Elementary — 1
Mohawk Valley Elementary — 1
Nadburg — 2
Nogales Unified — 1
Page Unified — 2
Palo Verde Elementary — 1
Parker Unified — 2
Patagonia Union — 1
Pearce Elementary — 1
Riverside Elementary — 1
San Simon — 1
Sanders Unified — 2
Santa Cruz Valley Unified — 4
Seligman Unified — 1
Solomon Elementary — 2
Tempe Elementary — 8
Tolleson Elementary — 1
Washington Elementary — 11
Wenden Elementary — 2
Whiteriver Unified — 3
Willcox Unified — 2
Window Rock Unified — 3
Winslow Unified — 4
Young Elementary — 1
Yuma Elementary — 7
Yuma Union — 9
— Source: Governor’s Office