Sunday, October 1, 2023

PCS board members split over EV bus contract

Deisel buses currently in use at Pender County Schools. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

PENDER COUNTY — Members of the Pender County Board of Education found themselves discussing accepting free electric buses on Tuesday night, even though the board had entered into a contract to obtain them months prior.

Last year, the state was charged with distributing $30 million from the North Carolina Volkswagen Settlement Program. With the money it bought 161 buses, most of them EVs, for Pender County and other school districts across the state. 

The district entered into a contract with Duke Energy, which is providing the charging stations for the EVs, but one clause has some board members reconsidering accepting the grant. Under the plan, Duke Energy will loan Pender County Schools the charging stations until the end of 2025. After that, the contract states Duke Energy has the option to transfer ownership at no cost or minimal payment.

Board members Brent Springer and Phil Cordeiro had a problem with the lack of certainty over the fate of the charging stations. Without a specified amount, Duke Energy could charge the school district more than it is willing to pay for the stations.

“There is no obligation that Duke do anything, period,” Cordeiro said during Tuesday’s meeting. 

At the last school board meeting, the board instructed Chief Auxiliary Services Officer Michael Taylor to request Duke Energy amend its contract to ensure it will sell the charging stations to PCS at the price of $1 at the end of the contract. 

In Tuesday’s meeting, Taylor reported back to the board; Duke Energy refused their request. According to him, PCS was the only district making such a request and the energy company was not willing to make changes based on one request. 

Springer made a motion to terminate the contract. 

Board member Beth Burns reminded her fellow members that reneging on a decision was not typical practice of the school board unless substantial new information was available. 

“Quite honestly, I have not received information that has changed my mind on this,” Burns said. 

Board chair Ken Smith said it would be a “PR nightmare” if Duke decided to invoice school districts for the EV charging stations in two years.

But the transfer wasn’t the only issue; Springer was also concerned about the vehicles’ fire safety. He claimed 15,000 gallons of water was needed to put out a Tesla fire when only a thousand is needed to put out a 2,000 square-foot house. Tesla claims its takes between 3,000 and 8,000 gallons, with one report showing 6,000 was needed to put out a fire. Estimates for house fires vary by house, but reports show between 1,000 and 3,000 gallons is typical. 

Springer also expressed concern over lithium batteries leaking into the environment upon a traffic or fire accident.

The other board members were not as concerned in this realm; Smith noted every mode of transportation has its cons.  

“If it was battery, diesel or if we had horsepower school buses out there and one of the horses got hit, and we had to clean up their guts — you’re going to have to clean up something,” Smith said. 

Ultimately, Cordeiro and Springer’s motion to reconsider failed 3-2. Smith, only permitted to break tie votes, dissented. 

After the vote, Cordeiro made a motion to require those who stuck by the contract to pledge their personal assets to cover the costs of those charging stations if Duke Energy asks for more than $1 for them.

Smith said the action was “just about as crazy of a motion” he’s ever heard; the motion died due to no second. 

Also at the Tuesday meeting, the board approved $48,000 in repairs for Burgaw Middle School. Its media center was damaged in May after Burgaw resident Jonathan Franklin drove his white Ford truck into an exterior wall. Several books and furniture was damaged in the crash; a temporary wall was erected until the district could award a contract to rebuild the structure. 

The board also approved a feasibility study to equip its entire transportation fleet with GPS tracking. Cordeiro’s idea, he asked district staff to explore the option of putting trackers in the white fleet. The yellow fleet — which includes the student buses — have GPS trackers paid for by the state. The benefits, Cordeiro said, would be speed and location monitoring, plus preventative maintenance reminders. 

The motion passed unanimously.

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