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When Holly Thorpe, then a MAST middle schooler, first lobbied the Miami-Dade School Board about converting to electric buses in 2019 there was little enthusiasm. “I’ve got this amazing picture of (School Superintendent Alberto) Carvalho  standing over her because he did not like any criticism of the school board,” said Michele Drucker, who was the parent in 2017 who founded the MAST extracurricular club Green Champions.

“And he says to her, ‘Why do you care about this so much anyway?’ And she’s like, ‘Because I care about the environment and marine life.”

Thorpe, a 17 year-old junior,  has become a major voice for the environment on Key Biscayne and Miami.

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Thorpe and the Green Champions didn’t give up and the school district landed 50 electric buses to replace ones that spew diesel exhaust. Now that fleet will double thanks to a nearly $20 million  grant through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Holly Thorpe, a MAST student who led a push for electric school buses, speaks at the bus fleet’s unveiling, Aug. 15, 2023. The fleet will now double thanks to a $19.75million grant through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)

It is the largest award of the Clean School Bus Program given to a school district in the state of Florida. Miami-Dade is the fourth largest school district in the country.

“We started 2024 with a big win for students and the environment,” Thorpe said. “We must continue to fight for clean energy and a livable future.”

Thorpe noted that 2023 was the warmest year on record in 150 years. “Seeing more electric buses coming to our school district gives me hope that we are heading in the right direction in reducing CO2 emissions from transportation, the leading cause of greenhouse gasses and global warming,” she said.

The EPA grant is not limited to the buses alone, the award also supports procurement of additional charging infrastructure, which is vital to any electric bus project. 

Drucker also gave credit to Karly Pulido, Miami-Dade Schools’ first ever sustainability officer – a position created after lobbying by Thorpe and the Green Champions.

“She has been applying for multiple federal grants under the Inflation Reduction Act,” Drucker said. “So Miami is getting a piece of President Biden’s billions to make our air cleaner and healthier for our children.”

Drucker said that Luisa Santos, the school board member for District 9, has also been key to moving the Miami-Dade Schools toward green energy. The school district has adopted an initiative to switch entirely to clean energy by 2030.

“She is the one who was very proactive and pursuing the clean energy resolution Initiative and she’s the one who said, ‘OK, let’s create a task force and let’s get to work on this,” Drucker said. “She’s closer in age to the students than most of the school board.”

But the catalyst of it all is Thorpe. The first 50 buses were thanks to Thorpe pointing out that money was available through Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” emission settlement.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvaho speaks to MAST student Holly Thorpe in 2019 after Thorpe lobbied the school district to switch to electric buses. (Photo/Provided by Michele Drucker)

“She said, here’s a problem and I have a solution. Please apply for these buses,” Drucker said. “And it took her multiple efforts because they were not interested.”

The current district plan calls to electrify 15% of the fleet, with annual evaluations should the district decide to purchase more.

“We have 900 more to go,” Thorpe said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This version corrects the title for Luisa Santos and the spelling of Ms. Pulido’s name.

JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.