Faced with widespread staff shortages that appear to be here to stay, school districts have raised wages, expanded health insurance and other benefits, and dangled bonuses and incentives.
The Schoharie Central school district in upstate New York tried some of those things, but they haven’t totally worked, and they’re expensive. Now the district has another trick up its sleeve that it’s hoping will set it apart from competitors: on-site electric vehicle charging.
Starting Sept. 1, the district’s single K-12 campus will have eight chargers in the parking lot—enough to charge 16 vehicles at a time. Staff members with electric vehicles will get first dibs on the chargers, and community members could take advantage as well during off-hours and on weekends.
Two teachers came to district administrators this past spring asking for a place to charge their electric vehicles after their commutes of 40 minutes to an hour. Superintendent David Blanchard has since seen additional electric vehicles in the parking lot each morning when he walks in.
Around the same time, Blanchard observed during this year’s Super Bowl that the majority of car commercials were for electric vehicles.
“It became, ‘Hey, you may have to commute here, we’re a small rural district—but we can make it more affordable,’” Blanchard said.
It helped that Blanchard was already a proponent of electrifying transportation. His wife owns an electric car, and he got solar panels for his home seven years ago. The district doesn’t have electric buses yet, but New York is requiring all schools to transition to electric buses by 2035, and the Schoharie district already has plans to convert its minivans to plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Rural districts like Schoharie often struggle to find enough qualified people willing to move to the area or stick around for a long time. As gas prices soar and electric vehicles become more mainstream, Blanchard hopes the district will stand out among its neighbors as a welcoming place for new employees.
Electric charging isn’t as expensive as many think
Figuring out how much the chargers would cost, and whether they would work, was daunting, but not impossible, Blanchard said. The local power company, National Grid, paid for 90 percent of the charging infrastructure and connected the district with vendors to construct the chargers.
The upfront cost was $42,000 for the 900-student district, which operates annually on a $24 million budget. That’s a fairly small chunk of change to begin with, but Blanchard believes the investment will pay off in multiple ways.
First, the district will charge a small fee, likely a handful of dollars per charge, for using the chargers—one price for the general public, and a discounted one for district workers. That money will be the district’s to use as it pleases.
But the less-tangible reward will be the chargers’ effect on hiring.
More than two million electric cars are already on the road in the U.S. Car executives say they expect more than half of car sales to be electric by 2030. The infrastructure spending bill Congress passed last year includes $3 billion to spur electric vehicle production and $7.5 billion to expand charging access.
The demand for EV charging will also grow, particularly for people who have long commutes to work, or for people who live in apartment buildings where chargers often aren’t readily accessible.
Only roughly 400 electric vehicle chargers are currently operating on K-12 school campuses in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuel Data Center. Most are in California and Connecticut, with a smattering in 15 other states.
In Connecticut, Brendan Sharkey, a former speaker of the house in the state legislature, has formed a consulting company, Daisy Solutions, that’s been encouraging and assisting districts there with getting electric vehicle charging on school grounds.
“The idea is to create a statewide network of fast chargers basically at every high school, so that no matter where you go, you’re part of this network,” Sharkey said. Electric school buses that take students 50 miles on an athletic trip could recharge at another nearby school while students are playing their game. And electric vehicle owners could use the devices when buses aren’t.
Sharkey expects between 25 and 50 districts out of 250 in the state to sign on by the end of the year, and hopes to expand to other states in the future. “Our experience is, as soon as we can get the information in front of these districts, they seem to be accepting of it and moving on it,” he said.
Just getting started is the hardest part
Oftentimes, the biggest barrier is knowing how to get started. But that’s easy to overcome.
“There’s a tendency with charging to want to make it fancier than it has to be,” said Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, a nonprofit that advocates for expanding electric car use.
Because most teachers probably aren’t driving more than 15 to 20 miles to work, many schools could likely get away with calling a local electrician to install a simple electrical outlet in their parking lot, Levin said.
Electric vehicle charging can also be a teaching tool. In 2018, the Austin school district in Texas installed four electric vehicle charging stations that came with curriculum materials on sustainability and power usage. The stations there are known as “Living Labs” because students collect data from them.
Meanwhile in Schoharie, Blanchard hopes the new feature will help the district attract applicants for currently open positions for secondary teachers for special education, math, science, and technology.
Particularly as the price of gas surpasses $5 a gallon, Blanchard thinks applicants will find the prospect of charging their vehicle at work more enticing than what other surrounding districts can offer.
“These days we’re trying to do anything we can to attract teachers and employees,” Blanchard said.