OPS takes a fresh look at bus policy-showcase

Outside Lewis and Clark Middle School, seventh-grader Diana Treja, left, heads to a bus with eighth-graders Yesmin Reyna, center, and Litzi Degante. A revision of the district’s busing plan means a change in which elementary and middle schools Omaha students could ride a bus to.

Who gets a bus ride and to which school could change under a new student assignment plan for the Omaha Public Schools — but families won’t feel any effects until fall 2017.

After more than a year of discussions, surveys and community meetings, the OPS board approved a revamped student assignment plan last week that sets rules for busing and school choice at the elementary and middle school levels.

The board decided to hold off on drafting a plan for high school students because two new high schools could be built in the next five years, depending on a future school bond vote.

“There’s just so much going on at the high school level,” said board member Katie Underwood, who led the committee that drove the new policy. “It felt premature to do something to high schools now and change again in two to three years.”

The board vote was 6-2.

OPS will spend the next two years rolling out the plan and explaining the changes to families. The upcoming 2015-16 school year will give district staff more time to compile a communication plan that will be rolled out in the 2016-17 school year. In the winter of that school year, families will start selecting which schools their children will attend in 2017-18, when the new plan will actually be implemented.

To help parents decode the new policies, the district plans to build a new busing website, with elements borrowed from similar sites used in Boston and Minneapolis. The website will allow parents to plug in their address and student’s information and figure out which schools they could attend with transportation.

The biggest impact from the plan will be to reduce the number of schools that elementary and middle school students can opt into and still receive a bus ride.

Under the current policy, which was last revised in 2009, families can choose from dozens of schools. Depending on a complex mix of factors — their income level, address and the socioeconomic diversity level of the chosen school — their student might get a bus ride.

School board members have called this system convoluted and confusing for families, while the vast amount of school choice drove up transportation costs and led to long bus rides for some students.

The district spends about $21.2 million to bus about 16,000 students under the current student assignment plan. That doesn’t include another $20.7 million spent to bus 1,940 special education students. OPS pays more per student for busing than many other urban school districts in the Midwest.

The new student assignment plan will give families fewer options that guarantee transportation but could increase the number of students who can ride to their neighborhood school. School walk zones will be shrunk from 1.5 miles to 1 mile for elementary students and from 2 miles to 1.5 miles for middle schoolers.

To offset the additional expense of busing more kids to their home school, students will still be able to enroll at any school that has space, but they won’t necessarily get a bus ride there, leaving parents to rely on carpools, city buses or other modes of transportation.

“That’s the biggest impact,” Underwood said.

“I feel we’ve done a very good job communicating the student assignment plan, so I hope people have been paying attention and taking advantage of the meetings,” she said. “After they realize, I’ve only got 10 to 12 options now when I used to have 60, I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise.”

Under the new “partner school” system, elementary students will be able to get a ride to roughly eight to 10 schools, while middle school students will have a choice of four to five schools with busing.

If they don’t want to enroll at their neighborhood school, families can pick from a list of partner schools that are somewhat close to home or offer socioeconomic diversity. Students can also attend a magnet school in the “partner” area.

Partner schools will try to promote socioeconomic integration by pairing schools with higher and lower concentrations of low-income students. For example, depending on available space, students who live near higher-poverty schools such as King or Fontenelle Elementary could attend Standing Bear or Sunny Slope Elementary Schools, which have a lower free and reduced-price lunch population.

Students also will no longer receive priority for busing and school selection based on their free or reduced lunch status, a change school officials said should make the school selection process fairer and more transparent.

OPS has yet to land on a firm cost estimate for the new policy, saying it’s difficult to estimate which schools families will pick once the new system goes into effect. Depending on how many students stick closer to home or opt into a different school, overhauling busing could save the district $4.7 million or add $3.8 million to the busing tab for general education students.

School board members have also discussed cost-saving options, such as privatizing special education busing. Other options could add to busing efficiency, such as opting for an open-seat policy that could pick up more students on existing routes if buses have empty seats. That would allow more kids to get transportation without increasing costs.

The district hasn’t decided which, if any, students would be grandfathered in under old busing policies.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1210, erin.duffy@owh.com

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