Student drop off and pick up at Johnson Elementary School on Sept. 14, 2022.
Student drop off and pick up at Johnson Elementary School on Sept. 14, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

San Diego’s largest school district made a bold commitment this year: It would drive down planet-warming emissions districtwide until the business of schooling produced the same amount of emissions as it removes from the atmosphere.  

In other words, the San Diego Unified School District promised to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Except, the district is ignoring the millions of car trips its commuters take and it has no plan to eliminate or make up for the emissions they cause.   

Here’s the breakdown: According to the district’s most recent emissions analysis from 2015, almost a quarter come from students or parents commuting to school. Employees who drive are another 26 percent. The district-owned fleet, including existing buses, made up another 13 percent of the total emissions pie. That’s 62 percent of the district’s 74,742 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year coming straight from driving.  

But the district only plans to eliminate around 28,400 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in its supposedly net zero commitment.  

The federal government and many other school districts are moving rapidly to transition old diesel or natural gas buses to electric fleets, which has benefits also for more short-term pollution and public health challenges. But San Diego Unified leaders can’t hope to eliminate emissions through electric buses because San Diego Unified largely abandoned busing as an option.  

In 2010, the district ran 2,300 bus routes and transported 17,500 students daily. Now it operates 1,102 routes that serve 5,369 students. That means over 95 percent of the district’s nearly 113,000 students commute to school each day by some other means.  

School board trustee Cody Petterson (formerly a climate policy advisor to San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer) acknowledged that the board’s climate resolution passed in April doesn’t tackle the commute. 

“To think we could somehow net out all the carbon that’s coming from all these vehicles is just inconceivable,” Petterson said.  

Instead, the district is tackling the other 40 percent or so it can directly control – the “low-hanging fruit” as Petterson called it. That includes switching power sources from San Diego Gas and Electric to 100 percent renewable electricity from San Diego Community Power and phasing out natural gas from school stoves and water heaters.  

If San Diego Unified had a school bus fleet, there’s more money on the table than ever before to convert it.  

The country’s biggest investment in climate to date, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, put $5 billion on the table for electric school bus replacement. With its short, fixed routes and big-time battery power, the school bus is considered an ideal candidate for transportation electrification. One estimate suggests electrifying every existing school bus in the country is the emissions equivalent to eliminating one million gas-powered cars. And, when not in use (which is most of the time) electric bus batteries could provide much needed back-up power to the electric grid. 

Petterson said the district is mobilizing to grab some of that funding to flip their own fleet – or, what’s left of it.  

Where did San Diego’s school buses go? Voice of San Diego reporter Jakob McWhinney unspools that history in his latest column, The Learning Curve. Part of it is a question of finances. The district will say it cut buses before other services like libraries. The other reason is deeply rooted in the United States’ ugly history of racial segregation in schools. 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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  1. From Kindergarten at Kosciusko Elementary School in Cudahy, WI 64 years ago to CHS in San Diego as a 12th grader, never once, I repeat never once did my parents or anyone else drive me to school. I am currently a 70-year-old Ironman triathlete which may explain the idiocy of not walking, running or bicycling to school. Dan Smiechowski is an ignored American and candidate for San Diego Mayor.

  2. Easy fix, ban parents from dropping kids off at school.
    But seriously, why are you holding SDUSD response for things thst are clearly family decisions?
    Does your continuous bashing on SDUSD have anything to do with being sponsored by a charter school?

    1. Other school districts (like Poway Unified) have offered home-to-school bussing, but (for a few exceptions) not SDUSD. Instead, tens of thousands of cars drop off and pick up students at schools in SDUSD.

    2. Banning parents has absolutely nothing to do with it – I would love for my kids to ride the bus to school, as I am sure most working parents would.

      But there is not a single bus that services the local public elementary school my kids are in. Kids cannot ride a bus that doesn’t exist.

  3. SDUSD just sent out a memo requiring all district employees to go back to the office. SDUSD does not care about climate impact, climate is likely one of its lowest priorities. The district leadership makes empty promises and meaningless policies to lift its political façade.

  4. $1.4 Billion ‘spending plan’ (they don’t even bother to call it a ‘budget), around 120,000 students, only 5,369 ride the bus… The rest get to school by ‘other means’ (a.k.a. parents driving cars belching CO2 while they gridlock the neighborhood twice a day five days a week).

    “To think we could somehow net out all the carbon that’s coming from all these vehicles is just inconceivable,” Petterson said.

    It’s not ‘inconceivable. It’s called ‘basic school bus service’ in almost every other state and it’s included in the school district budget.

    Even with ‘Californication math’ what releases more CO2?

    40 kids riding one school bus
    40 kids in 40 cars idling in traffic?

    1. Taking the bus to and from your local school is taken for granted in most of the country. I don’t understand how San Diego Unified got to a place where they expect parents to transport their students to and from school – in the middle of the work day no less.

  5. The district recently decided to end any/all telecommuting against the wishes of many central office staff. Wonder how much CO2 emissions would be saved each year just by allowing hybrid work?

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