EXECUTIVE INTERVIEW: EMUHSD is Introducing Zero-Emission Transportation Options to the School District

July 29, 2020

An ACT News Virtual Executive Interview with Lena Luna, Facility and Energy Manager, to learn how El Monte Union High School District is updating their fleet with EV School buses.

El Monte Union High School District (EMUHSD) is a recognized leader in promoting green initiatives in its schools, implementing green school practices in its operations Districtwide and fostering environmental sustainability in the classroom. EMUHSD was awarded $9.8 million earlier this year to promote zero-emission transportation options for students, parents, and staff as part of a two-year Clean Mobility in Schools Pilot Project program. Lena manages energy performance operations district-wide, creating district standards, engaging in project development, and cultivating collaboration.

Lena will be taking part in an interactive panel of industry experts discussing how the surge in funding for school bus replacement projects is sparking a tremendous interest in low emission technologies. This ACT Virtual online event “Big Wheels Keep on Turning: The Future of School Bus Replacement” takes place on November 12.

ACT News caught up with Lena to hear about how the school district is providing the foundational structure for a robust energy and sustainability program.

ACT News: You will be participating in an upcoming ACT Virtual executive panel on November 12 as part of “The Main Stage” online event series. Can you give us a sneak preview of what you plan on sharing with attendees related to how the El Monte Union High School District is exploring the cutting edge of advanced transportation technology?

Lena Luna: El Monte Union High School District (EMUHSD) first and foremost is proud to have an innovative and talented staff that is dedicated to exploring the cutting edge of advanced transportation technology.

EMUHSD was recently awarded $9.8 million from CARB for the transformative Clean Mobility in Schools Pilot Project.

Due to the strong leadership of our District, EMUHSD was recently awarded $9.8 million from the  California Air Resources Board for the transformative Clean Mobility in Schools Pilot Project, titled “A Transformative Clean Mobility Pilot: Connecting Research, Education, and Community in a Disadvantaged School District.” This grant award introduces advanced clean transportation, pilot curriculum development, and other mobility options into the state’s most disadvantaged communities. The Clean Mobility in Schools Pilot Project is part of California Climate Investments, a statewide initiative that puts billions of Cap-and-Trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health and the environment – particularly in disadvantaged communities like ours.

ACT News: El Monte Union High School District (EMUHSD) has been recognized as a leader in promoting green initiatives in its schools. What are some of the practices and initiatives that have been implemented to achieve this?

Lena Luna: The Board of Trustees leadership has provided the foundational structure for a robust energy and sustainability program through board policies that demonstrate commitment to green initiatives in schools.

Two people on a school bus

Transportation Coordinator Willie Vargas, pictured with Lena, is excited to drive the district’s first EV school bus once it is delivered.

For instance, one of our high schools has developed an engineering program that addresses environmental sustainability in city development by preserving natural resources, as well as a fruit tree garden that will contribute to the school’s farm-to-table culinary arts program. Both programs bolster its National Wildlife Federation Eco-Schools designation. A second EMUHSD School has opened a 1-acre Regenerative Learning Garden that doubles as a community garden and laboratory for students studying horticulture and water conservation.

In 2019, the Board of Trustees passed resolutions to reduce polystyrene foam use and to call for climate change action.

ACT News: EMUHSD is also recognized by both the state and the U.S. Department of Education for its pioneering environmental conservation efforts. What can you tell us about these efforts?

Lena Luna: In 2015, El Monte Union High School District won the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School District Sustainability Award and was designated as a “Green Achiever” district by the California Department of Education, the highest honor in the CDE’s Green Ribbon School program, for its pioneering efforts to maintain safe learning environments through conservation efforts and awareness. The District’s energy and sustainability program are driven by its policies on Green School Operations, Energy and Waste Management, Integrated Waste Management, and Evaluating Existing Buildings.

In partnership with Southern California Edison, our District, an Energy Star leader, was able to install 44 electric vehicle charging stations across our campuses as part of SCE’s $22 million Charge Ready program.

The District has won awards and accolades for its pioneering conservation efforts and sustainability program.

The District has pioneered several energy savings projects, including securing $15.5 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs) for solar power installation at six District sites and reducing water waste through a landscape survey and retrofit program. El Monte Union was recognized in 2017 with a San Gabriel Valley Water Smart Award by the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District for achieving significant reduction in water usage.

In 2019, EMUHSD received the 2019 Green California School Leadership Award demonstrating the Board of Trustees’ commitment to integrate environmental accountability and sustainability district wide.

ACT News: How critical are funding and incentive programs to building the infrastructure to support widescale deployment of alternative fuel vehicles? Can public funding help drive private investment?

Lena Luna: Funding and incentive programs are extremely critical, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to heavily impact school and state budgets. Education agencies will look to other sources of funding to scale out advanced clean transportation to align with California state policies. Yes, public funding can help drive school district investment.

Funding and incentive programs help drive school district investment in clean transportation.

ACT News: How is EMUHSD involving students in the environmental projects that the school district is undertaking?

Lena Luna: EMUHSD will be developing a pilot clean energy curriculum as part of the California Climate Investments statewide initiative and the California Air Resources Board Clean Mobility in Schools Pilot Project grant award. Environmental sustainability and awareness really begin with our youth, and it’s critical to involve them as they are the future of STEM innovation and development, fostering a clean, healthy and safe environment that is vital to the sustainability of our planet.

ACT News: What advice would you offer to young professionals interested in pursuing a similar career path?

Lena Luna: Take risks, trust your heart, sometimes things don’t make sense on the way to your goal, and the journey is usually unexpected. Keep a pliable, creative mind. Avoid rigidity. Be open to ideas even though they may conflict with your assumptions.

ACT News: Before working for EMUHSD, what was the most unusual or interesting job you have ever had?

Lena Luna: I worked for a sustainable architecture and design firm that allowed me the opportunity to travel all over California and Texas as part of a two-person team that evaluated buildings’ post-occupancy. I learned how to think about design, really tapping into how to be creative while keeping the business perspective on point and blending the poetic with the pragmatic.

ACT News: What is the most interesting thing about you that we would not learn from your resume alone? 

Lena Luna: I am writing a book and I’m in my second draft. I also recently won first place at a county fair for amateur nature photography.