November 2, 2022

By Hank Greenberg 

Many children and students are truly the leaders of the global fight against climate change. They can and are accomplishing a lot towards the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. 

A shining example of the power of youth in the environmental movement can be found in Miami, Florida. Holly, a student in the Miami-Dade county public school district, made a concerted effort to get her schools to move away from gas-powered school buses. She consistently presented her case in public school board meetings. 

School buses, as we know them, are emitters of carbon dioxide and carcinogens. 

Holly, and students like her, keyed in on a very important battle in the fight to lower global greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector accounts for 27 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States. 

Right now, there are more than 480,000 gas-powered school buses that are in regular use in every school district, every weekday all throughout the school year. When added together, the waste from school buses totals to more than 5 million tons of carbon emissions.

Students, parents, local leaders, and state leaders from across the country have found a viable solution to the school bus emissions problem: electric school buses. 

The Miami Dade county public school district and elected officials in Southern Florida have become leading advocates on this issue. On October 25, 2022, three of these leaders joined Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) for a press conference on electric school buses.

These leaders were Cindy Lerner — former Florida state representative from Pinecrest, Karly Pulido — Chief Sustainability Officer for Miami Dade Public Schools, and Luisa Santos — Miami Dade School Board Member for District 9. The discussion was moderated by EOPA co-founder Alex Cornell du Houx. 

Student-led efforts got Miami Dade public schools to embrace green technologies—

School board member Santos described how hard Holly worked, “she conducted science experiments. She told us about the correlation between clean air and student academic outcomes and student health outcomes. She told us that pollution inside the bus exceeds outside the bus. She told us about the known carcinogens that our students are breathing in.”

Holly’s independence, initiative, and action led to change. Santos said Holly reminded her of what she must do to effectively fight against climate change.

In 2021, Santos introduced a resolution that “acknowledges the urgency of needing 100 percent clean energy use by 2030 for better student health and financially responsible stewardship.” The resolution was passed unanimously.

A single resolution can make a large impact— 

Miami’s school district is the fourth largest in the nation, so what they do has a national impact. It serves over 350,000 students from nearly 400 schools. 

The Miami Dade school board also influences the smaller school districts around it. With eleven of the top twenty ranked public high schools in Florida, Miami sets the standard for educational attainment in South Florida. The changes not only affect the hundreds of thousands of students in Miami Dade County, but it affects their families, neighboring students, and future generations of children, too. 

As part of the acknowledgement, a clean energy task force was established and the role of Chief Sustainability Officer at Miami Public Schools was created.

Karly Pulido is the new Chief Sustainability Officer for Miami Dade Public Schools— 

Pulido started her role as Sustainability Officer in August 2022. She took immediate action on the electric buses. “We have made our first purchase of ten buses, which we are so excited about. We will be receiving them in the summer [of 2023],” said Pulido.

Electric school buses look almost exactly the same as gasoline buses, but they will remove five million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the air.

In addition to the electric buses, new charging stations are needed to make the system operational. “We are preparing our electric infrastructure. We have reached an agreement with our utility provider to install ten chargers in six sites,” she said. 

In this way, the purchase of the electric school buses directly helps the entire community. Now, drivers of electric vehicles have even more places where they can charge their cars.

Once again, the role of students and children came up. As Pulido talks to utility providers and applies for federal grants, she also receives and listens to feedback from students. “Part of what I am doing now is creating a student advisory council. They will be key in the input as to what we will be doing with our transportation infrastructure here as a district,” she explained. 

Students were the ones to start the electric school buses initiative in Miami Dade county. Asking for their opinions acknowledges how valuable they have been throughout the process. 

While getting ready for the first ten buses has been quite the undertaking, they are only part of a larger transition towards a fully electrified fleet. 

Pulido set the goal for her school district at fifty buses.

“Ten buses is a great start, but we do have plans on future purchases,” Pulido said. “Of course, with a dynamic economy, it is not definite how many we will purchase. We are aiming to have fifty, but we do need additional support.” 

Extra help has come from towns helping each other and from the federal government—

For many school districts, the federal government has provided assistance in procuring electric school buses. The Biden administration created the Clean School Bus Program through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Over the next five years, the law will allocate $5 billion towards the purchase of electric buses in school districts all across America. 

However, on October 26, 2022, Miami Dade County schools found out that their application for 25 electric school buses was denied for this year, but anticipate funds in 2023

Vice President Harris announced the recipients of the Clean School Bus rebates in late October.

Former state representative Lerner suggested that the state government could contribute. She emphasized why it is especially important for Floridians to get involved; “We are ground zero for the adverse impacts of climate change. Between sea level rise, more intensified hurricanes, extreme weather events, it is incumbent on us to take a leadership role and advance initiatives at the local and state level.”

Still, Lerner recognizes that the current political climate in Florida makes this goal more difficult as compared to other states. “We are not there yet as a state,” she commented. 

Lerner continues to have an optimistic view about the potential for assistance in South Florida. Since 2009, towns in the Miami area have regularly come together as part of their regional Climate Compact. 

“In these meetings, we started planning for how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” explained Lerner. If one locality finds a way to reliably pay for electric buses, every other school district will learn about it. 

Lerner suggests working with utility providers to benefit the entire community. Because the initial financial investment is the largest obstacle to the electrification of buses, Lerner proposed that it could be a great opportunity for utility providers to step in. 

She cited an example from Virginia to illustrate her case. “In Fairfax county, Virginia, Dominion Utilities are doing some of the upfront investment [into electric school buses],” said Lerner. “Of course, it’s to the utility’s benefit to have more electric usage than fuel usage. I am going to encourage that we explore that as well here in Florida.” 

As Pulido noted earlier, the school board in Miami already has a strong relationship with their utilities. 

When taking in all the options Miami Dade schools could use to electrify their fleet of buses, Pulido reflected and said, “The type of impact and the possibilities we have before us is insane, for lack of a better word. We can really be leading this movement forward and we intend to do so.”