Problems persist with electric buses acquired under the federal Clean School Bus Program. Buses that were ordered off the road for safety problems earlier this year returned this week from the manufacturer. The buses failed to pass inspection and have been deemed unsafe to drive.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

WINTHROP — Department heads in the Winthrop Public Schools will meet this week with representatives of the federal Department of Education to figure out how to move forward with the district’s four grant-funded electric school buses, which failed inspections again last week and were deemed unfit to drive.

The four electric buses supplied by Québec-based Lion Electric Co. came riddled with problems,  first reported in December. Transportation Director Josh Wheeler has said his last straw came in February, when the power steering in one of the buses failed and he had to drive into a snowbank to stop the bus.  

The buses were returned to the company shortly after that incident, and Wheeler later received word they were fixed. But when they were returned to Winthrop last week, the Maine State Police’s inspection unit found problems with the emergency exits and the heating system that rendered the buses unfit to drive. 

Wheeler and Winthrop Public Schools Superintendent Jim Hodgkin will meet with officials in charge of the federal Clean School Bus Program, which awarded the grant to acquire the buses, along with a representative from the Department of Education, to figure out how to move forward.

“I think it’s frustrating. They were gone for three months and gone through with a fine-tooth comb and failed,” Hodgkin told the Kennebec Journal. “(Lion Electric Co.) has been very responsive. When they heard the buses failed — they have a limited amount of technicians, but are going to send one this week or next to go through with (Wheeler) and state police on what happened.”

Wheeler updated the Winthrop School Board at Wednesday’s meeting. He noted that the two inspectors from the Maine State Police, which routinely inspects school buses, were new to the situation and had not performed the previous two inspections.

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The inspectors found all four buses — all 2023 models with miles ranging from 532 to 29,053 — had problems with emergency doors either not latching or being difficult to open. The diesel heater in two buses did not work; the seat belt cutter was missing from one bus; and in one bus, the motor simply did not start. Additionally, two did not plug into the charging stations.

The issues recorded by the inspectors mean the defects result in the vehicle being unfit to drive.

Patrick Gervais, Lion Electric’s vice president of trucks and public affairs, said in a statement to the Kennebec Journal that some damages occurred to the electric buses in the flat-bed transportation of the vehicles, but the company plans to take the necessary steps to inspect and fix the buses.

“During transportation, some damages occurred, but nothing that affected any critical systems,” Gervais said. “Some minor items had to be addressed by our service teams, which is not unusual when heavy-duty vehicles are shipped on a flatbed. All flagged items have been addressed, other than damage to a heating system on one vehicle that occurred in transportation, which will be addressed shortly.”

Winthrop Public Schools did not pay for the four electric school buses, but were selected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take part in the Clean School Bus Program. For every electric school bus the district received for free, it traded in a diesel bus.

School Board Chair Alicia Lawson asked at Wednesday’s meeting if other schools are having the same issues as Winthrop. Wheeler said the Yarmouth School Department is still having problems with its two electric buses, which had leaky windshields when they were first delivered.

Wheeler also mentioned reading articles regarding financial struggles Lion Electric is facing, including laying off 100 workers amid a $100 million loss, as reported in the Financial Post.

Yarmouth Director of Transportation Chris Storer said the school department used the electric school buses for only a week last year and three weeks this year before they were sent back to the company for repairs. Like Winthrop’s buses, Yarmouth’s two 2023 models have fewer than 3,000 miles, when a diesel bus puts on around 10,000 miles transporting students in an average school year.

“We have had heater failures, blown compressors, critical battery failure, degraded power levels,” Storer said. “The most recent is overheating that causes the buses to lose power.”


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