One of the electric buses received by Winthrop Public Schools is pictured in December parked near Winthrop Middle School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

WINTHROP — Winthrop Public Schools may be required to pay for faulty electric buses obtained through a federal program if the district decides not to put the buses back in service.

Jim Hodgkin, the superintendent of Winthrop Public Schools,  and Josh Wheeler, the district’s transportation director, met with representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency on May 30 to figure out the next steps regarding the four Lion Electric Co. school buses.

The buses came to the district through the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program but almost immediately began showing problems before they were taken off the road, at the urging of the state Department of Education, in Winthrop and two other Maine school districts.

According to the Winthrop school officials, the EPA staff could not provide a clear answer on the problem buses, other than that the district may be obligated through its contractual agreement to pay for not using the buses.

Hodgkin told the Winthrop School Board Wednesday night that the EPA recommended the school district use the buses through the summer to test their performance. Several members of the board expressed uncertainty about putting the buses back in service, particularly after an incident early this year when Wheeler was forced to drive one of the buses into a snowbank to stop it after a power-steering failure.

“They basically also reminded us that we accepted $1.4 million-worth of equipment and that we have an obligation to run the buses or we are in violation of the contract with the grant,” said Hodgkin. “They stopped short of saying that we have to (use the buses), but we would be liable for the cost of not using them.”


Maine, the EPA says, is the only state having trouble with buses obtained through the program.

The electric school buses that arrived in Winthrop came riddled with problems, ranging from leaky windshields to the power-steering failure experienced by Wheeler, which alerted the state to tell the district not to drive the buses until they received further inspections.

Since then, Hodgkin said, Lion Electric has worked with the buses to ensure the correct repairs are made, and the buses now pass inspection.

Both Hodgkin and Wheeler said they would feel save driving and riding on the buses.

However, board members Ivy Corliss and Monika McLaughlin said they did not feel comfortable having the buses on the road with children as passengers after the power-steering failure. School Board Chair Alicia Lawson questioned how to move forward after the buses had so many problems.

“I think it’s interesting the EPA would say we are not making good on our promise for our obligation to drive the buses, but they didn’t make good on their promise to make the buses good and working,” Lawson said. “It blows my mind that they are holding us accountable on our end. I’m not understanding.”

The School Board made no decision on the matter Wednesday, so the future of the buses in Winthrop remains uncertain.

Hodgkin said the EPA told him the district would still be in breach of their contract if it held on to the buses but kept them parked and unplugged in the school parking lot.

“When they show up and the bus is three years old and has 500 miles on it,” Hodgkin said, “it would be a violation.”

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