Omaha Public Schools’ effort to guide more bond construction work to small businesses drew both praise and scrutiny at Wednesday night’s school board meeting.

The meeting also included an 8-0 vote by the board to adopt the district’s $557.2 million general fund budget.

Cracks are showing in the OPS economic inclusion program, City Council President Ben Gray and north Omaha activist Preston Love Jr. told the school board during its public comment session, even as several contractors praised the program for providing more opportunities to contractors in poorer neighborhoods.

Gray and Love — who have been two of the leading voices in pushing for more job opportunities in high-poverty areas — said OPS was at a critical juncture and must ensure that work is going to qualified contractors.

Gray said he’s fielded complaints about the quality of work at Ponca Elementary, which is undergoing a $4.5 million renovation. He asked how contractors are being vetted by OPS and Jacobs Project Management Co., the company managing OPS’s $421 million bond program.

“(This has to) operate in a way so people don’t think somehow we’re dumbing down projects simply so we can hire minority contractors,” Gray said.

Love said he felt OPS and Jacobs are ignoring advice and guidance from people on the ground who know the contracting community.

“Because of this lack of using available resources, the street smart resources and expertise, OPS is setting up my contractors to fail,” Love said. “You’re not showing the capacity to discern who can and cannot perform.”

The school board adopted an economic inclusion plan earlier this year, and district officials have repeatedly stated their intention to involve more small and emerging businesses in bond construction, though the school board has sometimes been at odds over how to accomplish that goal.

Jacobs has set up a construction boot camp for contractors to brush up on technical skills, like estimating and bidding on jobs. So far, $3.6 million worth of bond contracts have gone to businesses certified through the City of Omaha’s Small and Emerging Small Business Program.

That’s a 10 percent participation rate, higher than the 7 percent goal the school board set in its inclusion plan, though bond work is still its early phase. The district also interviewed candidates for its new, in-house economic inclusion project director position in August.

Several contractors showed up to the board meeting to commend OPS’s attention to smaller contractors.

“I think this bond issue is the beginning of a really great example here in Omaha,” said general contractor Mark Santo. “A lot of other programs have tried to achieve what you guys are achieving.”

Contractor Houston McKell III participated in the construction academy and did demolition work on the Ponca project.

“I completed it early and I guess we did a good job,” McKell said.

In other business, the board heard from two parents and several students concerned about potential cuts to arts programs at South High, which offers an information technology and visual/performing arts magnet program.

Parent Angela Ballinas, whose son participates in the school’s show choir, said parents were told at a recent meeting that $100,000 had been cut from the magnet budget, which could affect purchases of art supplies and other equipment.

Since then, she and parent Matthew Reagan said they’ve received multiple explanations about the magnet budget, including that the money had been diverted to hire two additional staff members.

“We’ve heard three different stories,” Reagan said during a budget hearing. “I’m a little concerned we’re not getting a consistent answer as to where these budget dollars have gone.”

South High Principal Ruben Cano briefly addressed the issue during the public comment portion, saying no magnet programs would be cut at South, even if it meant using some of the school’s discretionary funds to cover program costs.

“We will not stop funding any of the programs we have now at South High,” Cano said. “They’re far too valuable. It is a concern that’s been heard and one we’ve begun to address.”

Toward the end of the meeting, the board voted 8-0 to adopt the district’s $557.2 million general fund budget, a spending increase of 3.9 percent compared to last year. Board member Justin Wayne was absent for the vote.

The total levy is $1.23 per $100 assessed value. For a home assessed at $150,000, that translates to a tax bill of $1,845, a $45 increase. That increase can be attributed to the bond that passed in November, since the district has now begun paying interest on those bonds, Chief Financial Officer Connie Knoche said.

For taxpayers who live within OPS boundaries, about 55 percent of their total tax bill pays for schools.

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

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