Southern Public Schools and the Electric School Bus: Wymore district rolls out its newest ride

Southern Public Schools and the Electric School Bus: Wymore district rolls out its newest ride

By Tyler Dahlgren

Gavin Nielson is an instrumental music teacher at Southern Public Schools, where retired Wymore Police chief Tony Shepardson works as a custodian.

This is where their work intersects, on the north side of the high school where one of just a handful of electric school buses in Nebraska sits, getting its charge hours before its afternoon route. Ask either of them five years ago, and they wouldn’t have envisioned themselves driving a school bus, let alone an electric one.

But here they are, thanks to two sizable grants and a superintendent who was willing to listen when school bus manufacturer Blue Bird reached out with a potential opportunity a few years ago. Dr. Chris Prososki, superintendent at Southern, isn’t an expert in the field of transportation, but after familiarizing himself with the Clean School Bus Grant and the EnergyWise Grant, he became intrigued. 

The grants would cover most of the total cost, including the bus itself and the charging stations. If Southern received both, and the more Prososki researched the more confident he was that they would, the district would be left with minimal out-of-pocket responsibility. 

“You have to continue to be innovative and not afraid to try things out,” he said. “And with us in the situation we’re in, where everything’s pretty much next-to-free, we figured ‘Why not try it out?’ It’s interesting to our kids, and hopefully in the future, thanks to this exposure, they’ll become interested in a career in electricity, whether it be with NPPD, as an electrical engineer, or anything along those lines. There’s hope that it’ll open their eyes to different fields out there.”

Driving the electric Blue Bird BBCV 3310 for the first time was an eye-opening experience in its own right. Nielson turned the key to fire up thirty-three feet and 10 inches of innovation, and was surprised to find it didn’t make a sound.

“We got on the bus, turned the key on, and nothing happened,” Nielson said. “Nothing happens.”

It’s stealthy silent, even rolling down the road, but the bus does emit what Shepardson called a low humming noise, just to let the kids know it’s coming.

“It’s just so quiet that our kids, when we switched to the electric bus, a lot of times they didn’t know that the bus was there,” he continued. “They were so used to listening for the big diesel buses that they could hear from inside their house. We had to honk at them a few times those first couple of days.”

Keeping the bus charged requires a logistical commitment and plenty of communication between its drivers. Even on a full battery, the bus can only go a maximum of 120 miles before it runs out of juice. If the heater is running, that number lessens. The route the bus is currently on weaves through Wymore and neighboring Big Springs and covers about 14 miles. That’s 28 in a day.

“There is an art to it,” Prososki said of the system Shepardson and Nielson have in place to keep the bus charged. “Both of them do a great job with that and are very well-organized.”

The first time he drove the bus, Shepardson noticed every little sound.

“You could hear the bumps in the road,” he said.

Now, that might not always be the case with 70 students on board, but it’s not supposed to be. School buses are a lively place, in the morning and in the afternoon. And being a school bus driver, the tandem is learning, is a pretty fun little gig.

“I enjoy telling the kids good morning and hearing them say it back,” said Nielson. “They’re always enthusiastic about it, too. I do enjoy that.”

Prososki said the district is working out the inevitable kinks that come with being a proverbial guinea pig working with new technology. Before embarking on this journey, he did his homework, contacting the Norris Public Power Department (NPPD) on more than one occasion and absorbing as much information as he could about Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) technology. NPPD pointed him in the direction of NUVVE’s charging stations, which were designed to give power back to the grid after a charge. Southern has one “fast” charger (three hours to full charge) and one slower charger (eight hours to full charge) at the high school and an additional slower charger at the elementary.

Additionally, the bus is also estimated to save the district up to $20,000 in fuel costs over the course of a year. The grant also covered a new transformer at the high school, which was overdue.

“Our transformer at the junior/senior high school was in terrible shape and on its last leg,” Prososki said. “So this in turn got us a brand new transformer, fully covered, which was a huge positive of this grant.”

One stipulation of the Clean School Bus Grant was that recipients would be required to destroy a diesel-powered school bus that was built before 2010. Southern had no problem meeting those standards, given the condition of its school bus fleet at the time.

And while the new electric bus has its travel limitations, it’s still a pretty cool vessel to take a joyride in.

“I noticed that it has an easier time going up hills than our diesels do,” said Nielson. “We took it out on the highway and up a big hill that the diesels usually struggle with, and it was doing pretty good with not slowing down and putting enough power out.”

The first step onto the electric bus is higher than what the kids are used to, which has been tricky for the preschoolers in particular. Outside of that and the lack of noise coming from under the hood, however, Southern’s new school bus blends in with its others.

“People are getting more and more used to it,” said Shepardson. “At first, they were kind of like, ‘Why do we need an electric bus?’ But the federal funding is there and it’s looking like there’s going to come a day when more electric buses are being pushed, so you might as well get in there and grab it while you can.”