The latest proposal for a revamped student assignment plan for Omaha Public Schools would leave high school busing and school selection policies alone but would shrink elementary and middle school walk zones and dramatically reduce the number of schools kids could opt into and still get a bus ride.

After collecting community feedback at a series of public meetings last month, on Thursday the OPS board reviewed a narrowed-down list of revisions for the student assignment plan, which sets rules for busing and school selection.

Current policies for the district’s seven high schools would remain largely untouched, but at the elementary and middle school level, smaller walk zones mean more students would be able to ride a bus to their neighborhood school.

OPS hopes to build two new high schools in the next five years, so board members are recommending waiting until then to make any changes at the high school level.

Also under the proposal, elementary and middle school students would no longer receive priority for busing and school selection based on their family income.

“It’s fairer,” said Scott Schmidtbonne, OPS’s director of research. “Kids won’t be denied access based on their parents earning too much or too little.”

The walk zones would be shrunk from 1.5 miles to 1 mile for elementary students and 2 to 1.5 miles at the middle school level.

More busing for more students would increase OPS’s transportation costs, so to help offset the expense, families would have a smaller number of schools outside their home school that they could opt into and still receive busing.

Under the so-called “partner school” system, students could get busing for a school close to their home or one within its general geographic area. Students also could attend a magnet school in the “partner” area.

Partner schools would try to encourage socioeconomic integration by partnering schools with higher and lower concentrations of poverty. For example, if there’s space, students who live near higher poverty schools like Sherman, Miller Park and Saratoga Elementary could attend Boyd Elementary, which has a lower free and reduced-price lunch population.

At the elementary level, students would be able to choose from roughly eight to 10 schools, while middle school students would have a choice of four to five schools with busing.

Under any plan, students will still be able to attend any school that has room. But they wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed a free bus ride there. Right now, some elementary students can choose from dozens of schools outside their home attendance area and still be eligible for a bus.

Under the current policy, last revised in 2009, transportation is provided to some high school students; elementary and middle school students who attend their neighborhood school and fall outside a set walk zone; students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and choose to go to a non-neighborhood school; and full-pay students who voluntarily attend a school with higher numbers of lower-income students.

The board has been tinkering with the student assignment plan for more than a year, calling its current form too complicated for parents and too costly and inefficient for the district.

Any changes won’t take effect till fall 2017.

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

The district doesn’t have a firm cost estimate for the new recommendations, but staff provided minimum and maximum projections. 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.

OPS’s per-student costs for general and special education busing are higher than many other urban districts in the Midwest, staff said.

The district is open to studying other potential cost efficiencies, such as switching to three different school start times, so buses can run through different routes, and implementing an open-seat policy that could pack more students onto buses by picking up more kids on existing routes if there’s room. More kids would get busing, at no additional cost to the district.

The board could vote on a new plan as soon as May 18.

Board members asked if they could see more precise cost estimates before that meeting and also cautioned that any conversation about busing changes would have to include a discussion on which students would be grandfathered in under the old policy.

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

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