New school buses for Tucson as part of Volkswagen fraud settlement

Story and photos by Kirshana Guy/Arizona Sonora News 

Tucson’s two largest school districts will receive over $4.5 million to purchase new school buses after a 2016 nationwide settlement with Volkswagen over the sale of their “clean diesel” vehicles.

The state of Arizona was allocated $53 million after Volkswagen pleaded guilty to three felony counts of defrauding the Environmental Protection Agency. The civil complaint by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Trade Commission claimed the automaker cheated emissions testing and deceived customers after installing software in the 2.0-liter diesel engine vehicles that enabled the emission controls only during the emissions testing.

On January 4, Governor Doug Ducey announced that 22 school districts would be receiving funding as part of “Arizona’s Lower-Emission School Bus Program.” Sunnyside Unified School District and Tucson Unified School District were among those chosen to receive funding.

The grant states the school buses awarded to the districts were based, at most, on 10 percent of the district’s fleet. Sunnyside currently has 91 school buses in its fleet, and was therefore awarded funds for nine new buses. Tuscon United School District currently has 320 buses in its fleet, and the new bus count is 32.

“We are thrilled that the VW Settlement grant will allow the district to purchase 32 new buses,” John Muir, interim chief operations officer for TUSD in a news release.

Jenny Montiel, the senior administrative assistant at Sunnyside, wasn’t able to disclose the date when the district will receive the buses.

“We are not getting a dollar figure, like we are not getting a check for a million dollars or a hundred thousand or whatever it is,” said Carlos Valdez, Sunnyside school district director of transportation and maintenance. “What is going to happen is it is going toward the replacement of older buses that have to meet two main criteria.”

According to Valdez, the buses that will be replaced must be over fifteen years old and have over 100,000 miles.

Stacy Nguyen has been a bus driver with Tucson Unified School District for approximately 13 years. She drives approximately 90 miles a day on three routes. She begins her day by picking students up in the morning and bringing them to school, before she starts her second route transporting pre-kindergarten children to school. Nguyen ends her day by taking the students home.

Asked one morning how many miles were on the bus she currently drives, Nguyen said there was 205, 685 miles logged. “Every day by law a bus driver has to maintain a daily log of their bus, which indicates that they did a full inspection of the bus, the amount of children they are transporting on that bus, and the amount of miles that are being driven every day on that bus,” she said.

“In addition, we back that up by looking at our fuel system and being able to corroborate what the drivers are submitting as their mileage and what they are actually putting in when they obtain fuel every day from our fuel system,” Valdez said.

Asked about seat belts and other safety features of TUSD buses, Nguyen said, “There are no mandates for students having to wear seatbelts on the bus, but there are some buses with harnesses for the younger children.”

Though only some of TUSD’s buses are equipped with seat belts, “what we are doing with our buses is we are making sure the seats are all high-back seats,” Valdez said. Valdez said SUSD has also upgraded the air conditioning compressors on their buses to ensure students are comfortable during the ride to or from school.

“We are going the extra mile to make sure our students are transported in a safe and courteous manner, especially when it is 110 or 115 Degrees in Arizona,” Valdez said. “We want to make sure they are riding in a comfortable bus because some of our students can ride in a bus for 30- 45 minutes, even up to an hour, depending on where they are going.”

How much does a school bus cost? Valdez said school buses can range in price depending on the options chosen at the time of purchase.

“You can get a school bus from anywhere from $65,000 for a small, 14-passenger school bus up to almost $250,000 or $300,000 depending on if you get an electric school bus or alternative fuel such as CNG,” said Valdez.

A large, full-sized diesel bus, according to Valdez, can run anywhere between $120,000 to $170,000.