Five new schools will rise over the next several years after voters approved a $409.9 million Omaha Public Schools bond measure Tuesday.
The win will allow OPS to finance major school construction projects, including two high schools in far northwest and South Omaha, two elementary schools and a middle school at 42nd and U Streets.
It’s been decades since OPS has built a new high school. Northwest and Bryan High, which opened in the 1970s, were the last to be built.
Superintendent Mark Evans thanked voters, board members and the members of the committee that helped raise money for TV ads and yard signs in support of the bonds. The construction projects will ensure that kids have schools that are safe, structurally sound and not bursting at the seams, he said.
“It doesn’t happen in every city in America, where folks recognize that our kids deserve high-quality learning environments, and in Omaha, they value all our kids,” Evans said.
It is the second time in four years that OPS has been able to persuade voters to take on a property tax increase in exchange for fixing up schools.
The $409.9 million measure was the follow-up to a $421 million bond issue that voters passed in 2014. Before that, OPS hadn’t put a bond referendum on the ballot since 1999, causing building needs to pile up.
In 2014, the school board, confronted with schools that needed more than $1 billion in repairs or new construction, took a gamble. Board members decided to split the bond issue into two parts, a strategy that they hoped would make the price tag more palatable to voters.
It paid off.
Like the 2014 bond issue, voters backed this one by a wide margin.
Rosa Najera, 26, was primarily motivated to vote by the OPS bond issue. She works in South Omaha, graduated from Bryan High and has a friend who works at South High.
“Omaha schools are overcrowded,” Najera said. “I wish we had more schools for the kids in Omaha because they’re the future.”
Still, some voters were hesitant to see their taxes increase again after the 2014 vote, and others questioned the district’s decision to take on more debt while it faces a $28.8 million budget hole.
To open and operate the new schools, OPS will also incur extra annual costs to pay for new teachers, utilities and other expenses, though officials said some of those costs would be offset by additional state aid or by staff moving from one school to another.
The bond issue will raise the tax levy for OPS homeowners by about 7 cents, resulting in a yearly increase of $105 on a home assessed at $150,000. This year, an OPS taxpayer with a $150,000 home paid about $1,890 in school taxes. The 2014 bond also required a tax hike.
At her Bethel Christian Ministries polling place in Bellevue, Joyce Higgins, 87, wasn’t sold on the OPS proposal.
In her household, she said, if she didn’t have the money for something, she had to make cuts elsewhere.
“If we have to cut back, they’re going to have to cut back,” she said.
But backers of the bonds pressed the need for new schools and additions to relieve pressure on crowded schools, especially in fast-growing areas like South Omaha.
With the proceeds of past bond issues, OPS had already bought land for the new schools. The South Omaha high school, which will ease crowding at Bryan and South High Schools, will be built at 60th and L Streets.
The northwest high school will be built at 156th and Ida Streets. Parents in that part of town have long lobbied for a neighborhood high school that was closer than Burke or Northwest, and the district hopes that the school will also help them hold on to suburban families, who have often opted out of OPS for private schools or Elkhorn, Millard or Bennington schools.
The YMCA of Greater Omaha and OPS are in talks to build a shared-use facility at that school, which could include a six-lane indoor pool, a fitness facility and child care rooms.
“I am thrilled for the district, and I’m thrilled for my constituents in northwest Omaha,” OPS board member Lou Ann Goding said. “This will be a great opportunity to work with the Y and develop a wonderful community facility out here.”
The two elementary schools are slated for 10th and Pine Streets, on a piece of land that once belonged to Grace University, and 1000 N. Fort Crook Road in Bellevue. The new middle school will be built next to Gateway Elementary in South Omaha.
Several existing schools are also slated for work. Lewis and Clark and Morton Middle Schools will get additional classrooms; the district’s Transition Program, for older special education students, will be relocated; and five elementary schools will get additions. Other schools will get much-needed upgrades, including new boilers, roofs and HVAC systems.
Most of the bond-funded work should be completed in the next five years.
The two bond issues aren’t expected to cover the entire backlog of repairs and renovations at OPS — or entirely eliminate the reliance on portable classrooms — but officials said the district’s 90-plus buildings will be in much better shape.
Evans, who will retire at the end of June, said that gives him comfort on his way out the door.
“I think it really sets us up for not just today, but 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now,” he said.
World-Herald staff writers Blake Ursch and Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.
For complete coverage, go to Omaha.com/election.