North Penn Bus

A school bus is parked at North Penn High School in Towamencin.

LANSDALE — There's a new twist in the ongoing saga of the North Penn School District's efforts to use state grant money to buy propane-fueled school buses.

District Director of Business Administration Steve Skrocki gave an update Monday night, relaying the latest word from the state on how to buy the buses.

"This is really becoming a 'Who's on first?' type of situation," said Skrocki.

Back iNovember staff announced North Penn had secured $460,000 in state alternative fuel grant funds to help cover the costs of buying school buses fueled with propane instead of diesel. A second grant was announced in January for $155,000 to cover the cost of installing a propane fuel station at the bus maintenance facility near North Penn High School.

District transportation staff have said the average age of their fleet of roughly 140 vehicles is over 12 years old, and Skrocki had said he hoped to apply for more than one round of the grants if possible. In February, the school board awarded a contract for six 48-passenger propane buses, but the low bidder reported they would not be able to make the due date for four smaller, 29-person buses staff requested, and the district sought to buy using the grants.

"We contacted the grant administrator, asking if we could get an extension. The answer was no, no extension was available," Skrocki said.

"So we asked the question, can we change the application for the four: instead of micro-buses, can we purchase 78-passenger buses, because we can receive them within the 180 days, if we do another bid. The answer to that was yes," he said.

Since the full-size buses carry a shorter lead time, Skrocki said, staff have already prepared a bid package seeking to buy four more, and are recommending the board use the remaining grants for those four. 

"We can use that grant money to purchase the remaining 78-passenger buses. So: what do with the 29-passenger buses?" he said.

"We did get a bid, we do have a number, we're comfortable with that number," for the price of the four smaller buses, he said.

In the 2019-20 budget now being prepared, Skrocki told the board, staff have included funding to buy a total of ten new buses. Staff's recommendation, Skrocki said, is to buy the four micro-buses using the funds included in the 2019-20 budget, since they won't qualify for the grant money.

Staff also asked for clarification on future rounds of the grant program, and whether North Penn could apply to buy more propane buses after the first ten are delivered.

"We thought it was a great plan: we could buy 10, and then 10 more. That plan came, pretty much, to a screeching halt when we were communicating with the grand administrator" about the timeline, Skrocki said.

"The grant administrator informed us that out of the $118 million that was available, only $6 million is left," he said. "It seems like that money is drying up pretty quickly."

Staff have identified a different grant program that could fund future bus purchases, but that grant can only be accepted in years a district has not accepted the funds North Penn already has, he said.

"We'll keep applying for grants, as long as grant money is available," Skrocki said.

School board President Tina Stoll asked for clarification on the timeline, and which would be paid for from funds in the 2018-19 budget versus 2019-20.

"We're going to be paying for four buses with next year's money, so next year we are going to get six more? So in a two year time, we will still have 20 new buses?" she said, and Skrocki replied yes to both.

Board member Jonathan Kassa asked for details on the operational cost savings of using propane buses versus diesel fuel, and Skrocki said staff studied those figures before applying and found significant savings in fuel and in maintenance.

"It was pretty remarkable: when you factor in things like the cost of oil, and maintenance time, and the cost of fuel, it's pretty dramatic over a long period of time," he said.

Stoll also asked if the district's insurance costs would change at all by using the propane buses instead of diesel, and Skrocki said they likely would not.

If approved later this month, he said, all three sets of buses — the original six full-size, the next four full-size, and the four micro buses — could all be delivered by the start of the 2019-20 school year, and the propane fuel station could also be ready by about the same time.

The North Penn School Board next meets at 7:30 p.m. on March 12, with the finance committee meeting at 6 p.m. that night, both at the district Educational Services Center, 401 E. Hancock St. For more information or meeting agendas and materials visit www.NPenn.org.

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