Governor’s plan will replace high mileage vehicles in low income districts
By Dana Trumbull
Apache Junction Unified School District could receive funding for up to five new school buses through a settlement between the US Department of Justice and Volkswagen.
In September 2015, Volkswagen executives admitted to rigging 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide with software designed to cheat emissions tests. Because of the scandal and resultant lawsuits, German automaker Volkswagen AG (VW) has agreed to spend up to $14.73 billion to settle allegations of cheating emissions tests and deceiving customers. According to VWSettlement.az.gov, The automaker will spend up to $10.03 billion to compensate consumers under the program and $4.7 billion to mitigate air pollution and invest in clean vehicle technology.
Arizona’s share of the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust is estimated to be nearly $57 million, distributed over the next ten years, with monies earmarked for projects that reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. Eligible actions include replacing or repowering eligible large trucks, buses and other specified vehicles with new diesel or alternative fuel engines or all-electric engines.
Accordingly, on June 8, 2018, Governor Doug Ducey released a plan to fund 281 new school buses over the next two years in low-income communities across the state using $38 million of the settlement. Funds will be given to school districts with 60 percent or more of their students eligible for Free or Reduced price Lunch (FRL), primarily in counties that need assistance in meeting federal air quality standards. Within those districts, buses earmarked for replacement must be at least fifteen years old with over 100,000 miles logged.
Of the estimated 281 eligible buses statewide, Pinal County will receive approximately 30. Of those, AJUSD should receive 4 or 5.
The average age of the AJUSD fleet is 12.5 years, with several of the buses meeting the Governor’s eligibility requirement for both age and mileage. With the distribution of capital funds cut to a mere 15% of the total mandated by state formula, the district has not been able to replace aging buses. The AJUSD transportation maintenance team has earned awards for their valiant efforts to keep the fleet alive and operating safely; even so, the district has resorted to limiting older buses and vans to in-district use only.
At the July 10, 2018, AJUSD Governing Board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Krista Anderson told the Board, “We’re currently verifying our Title I numbers… going through and making sure that the information we have is accurate. The piece that really is challenging is that we don’t have our high school students turning in applications for Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) eligibility.”
Many school grants and allocations, including the governor’s plan for distribution of the VW Environmental Mitigation Trust, are based on economic demographics extracted from the FRL applications. Although all but one (Peralta Trail) of the lower grade schools in Apache Junction USD carry a FRL rate of more than 60%, the high school generally hovers around 50%, in part because the return rate on the FRL applications at the high school level is comparatively low. This is true in most school districts, presumably because high school students are sensitive to a perceived economic stigma associated with receiving a free or reduced price lunch.
Unfortunately, with fewer applications turned in, the FRL rate trends lower in high schools, making it harder for the schools to qualify for economic-based funding such as Title I. (FRL application forms can be submitted online at: EZMealApp.com. See page A7 of the July 9 edition of The News for details of the Free or Reduced Lunch program.)
AJUSD should know within the next two weeks how many buses Apache Junction will be getting. “We are eligible for up to five,” said Anderson. “We will be thrilled with four.”
In the announcement of his spending plan, Ducey stated, “These dollars will go a long way towards making sure Arizona students are safely delivered to school every day. Additionally, putting these dollars toward the purchase of new school buses will free up existing funding sources, allowing school districts to focus on other capital needs to benefit students.”
The plan also includes funding other mission critical projects such as supporting wildland fire crews and equipment for the Arizona Department of Transportation.