Consider struggling families and offer more bus rides to students.

Consider taxpayers and quit busing kids across the city in order to direct more dollars into classrooms.

Consider the value of diversity and preserve a mix of students from different races, classes and neighborhoods at schools.

Omaha Public Schools asked for comment on its overhaul of a student assignment plan and got plenty of it at a meeting Thursday night. The gathering, at Benson High, was the first in a series of five community meetings.

Parents, community members and school staff offered spirited, sometimes conflicting input on proposed changes to the student assignment plan, which dictates district policy on busing and school choice.

A group of refugee parents discussed the need for more busing and shorter walk zones for their kids and neighborhoods.

Students at one table mentioned the importance of having magnet programs to choose from, while parents at another table struggled to grasp the differences between different busing options.

Revisions suggested by the school board could change which students get a bus ride to school. They also could shrink school walk zones and limit the number of schools that elementary and middle school students can apply to and still get transportation.

Any changes won’t take effect till fall 2017.

Pastor Mike Williams came to learn more about the new options.

He’s concerned about how much OPS spends to bus students and believes that money would be better spent inside the schools, to hire more staff or improve instruction.

“There’s a lot of busing and a lot of choice, and I’m not opposed to that,” he said.

“But sometimes there’s only eight kids on a bus. That money could be used in the classroom.”

Mark Pflug, from the Benson Neighborhood Association, endorsed the recommendation to reduce walk zones for students, hoping it would persuade more families to send their kids to their neighborhood school.

“I’m a big proponent of neighborhood schools,” he said. “It strengthens communities. It seems like more parents want transportation, but if they live too far to walk to a school, they go across town.”

Mia Crawford-Gray, whose son graduated from OPS, said she thought the current walk zones were too far for most kids to safely walk to school, especially at the elementary level; students going to their neighborhood school don’t get busing if they live within 1.5 miles of their school.

“I don’t want little 5- or 6-year-olds trekking a mile to school,” she said.

The last rewrite of the student assignment plan took place in 2009, but board members and parents have long complained that  the plan is too complicated and expensive.

“The goal with this is, is there a simpler way to do it?” school board secretary Matt Ray said.

The district spends about $42 million busing more than 18,000 students, though half those costs include required busing for special education students.

The new plan aims for greater efficiency, by reducing the number of buses that carry only a few students, and some degree of cost savings, though officials have yet to present any cost estimates.

Another recommendation the board is considering is eliminating the priority that students get for transportation and school selection based on their lunch status — one indicator of family income.

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

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