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Bus purchase falls through, school finds 'silver lining'

The Three Forks school board received the disappointing news that the purchase of two school buses had fallen through during its Aug. 23 special meeting, after approving the purchase only a week earlier.

What appeared to be a setback in upgrading the schools’ transportation systems, turned out to be a potential blessing in disguise for the district.

Superintendent Rhonda Uthlaut reassured the board: “There is a silver lining.”

During the week between the Three Forks School Board of Trustees regular and special meeting, it came to Uthlaut’s attention that the Department of Environmental Quality placed the district on a priority list for a $375,000 grant to purchase an electric bus and charging station.

Three Forks School Transportation Manager Craig Potts explained to the board that other Montana school districts, such as Helena, Havre and Billings, have already added electric school buses to their fleets.

“If we’re approved, it’s a free bus,” Uthlaut said.

Some board members worried how an electric bus would do on the district’s rougher routes, however, Potts said the school would have to “pick the right bus” for each route.

“Additional research and inquiry will be required before the district takes this step,” Uthlaut told The Voice.

During the Aug. 16, school board meeting, trustees questioned how many buses the district needed to fill all its routes. Potts assured the board that the trade would leave the district with two spare buses. “Long story short, we have more than enough buses for all of our routes,” Potts said, adding that the district’s lack of drivers prevents them from adding routes anyways.

Despite the district’s driver shortage, the board approved several new bus routes at its Aug. 23 meeting. Doing so allows the district to budget for the routes in case it finds more drivers.

Uthlaut and Potts also learned that the district qualifies for a $25,000 grant for a

More efficient and clean air system bus,” which opens on Sept. 1. Although the grant will not cover the entire bus purchase, Uthlaut said it would help offset the cost. “The district is always looking for possible grants available to offset the burden to our taxpayers and improve services for our students,” she told The Voice.

Potts informed the board that the deal with the dealer to trade three of the district’s current buses for $86,100 toward the purchase of two new buses – a $225,000 expense – still stands; however, the buses will not be available until November. The district would have to use its current fleet of buses in the meantime.

“I was not happy with this company for pulling out when they said we would be able to buy the buses, but the nice thing is, had we bought them, that grant that starts Sept. 1 would not have reimbursed us,” Uthlaut told the board.

Potts said he has begun searching other dealerships – some in different states – for other options. “I don’t want this to happen again,” he said.

If the district secures both grants, it will save approximately $TK compared to its prior decision to purchase agreement – and be better off for it.

Much to the board’s amusement, Uthlaut exclaimed: “We may have saved some money.”