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LPS Enrollment Numbers, 10.1

Lincoln High sophomore Thahn Y Nguyen (top center) enjoys a moment in a crowded cafeteria in October. The school was among places visited as part of a New York Times project called "The American Road Trip."

Wants vs. needs – it’s a common refrain from taxpayers encouraging elected officials to identify whether a proposed purchase is truly needed or more of a luxury.

As Lincoln Public Schools approaches a presumptive bond issue in 2020, school board members were forced to pare down their own previous recommendations along with an even more expansive list proffered by an advisory committee convened by Superintendent Steve Joel.

The end result, which the school board unveiled last week, contains far fewer projects – namely, new schools – than originally suggested. Board members succeeded in crafting projects that will keep the tax levy flat, as a previous bond issue is paid off. And the tough decisions speak volumes about what LPS needs most in the coming years.

Enrollment growth at LPS has indeed slowed, falling from more than 1,000 new students in 2014 and 800 in subsequent years to this year’s net tally of 251.

Accordingly, that number may seem small. But it’s roughly akin to adding the entireties of Norwood Park or Saratoga elementary schools to the district in just a single year – at a time of slowing growth, to boot.

Decisions made for previous bond issues – constructing schools onto which additions can be built, rather than requiring more new buildings – seem prescient. Some crowded elementary and middle schools (such as Wysong Elementary) were designed to accommodate growth in this manner, which is far more affordable than an entirely new school.

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That allowed the board to include just one new elementary school in far northwest Lincoln and no middle schools in its new recommendations. Its foresight should pay off – quite literally – to boost a bond issue where an increase in the tax levy could jeopardize its success.

And that same philosophy of ensuring expansion capabilities applies to the district’s decision to build two smaller high schools that can also handle later additions. With five of LPS’ six high schools exceeding 2,000 students and two – East and Lincoln High – now eclipsing enrollments of 2,300, nearly all existing secondary buildings are simply packed beyond their capacity.

Athletic complexes – long a point of contention in bond issues – for these high schools won’t be fully funded by the bond issue and will require some private funding. If LPS has eight high schools, it will need more space than Beechner and Seacrest fields will offer.

Unlike most burgeoning Omaha-area districts, Lincoln’s growth isn’t concentrated in just one area of town, meaning school officials needed to get creative in how they approached these potentially thorny subjects. And they certainly did.

Given LPS board members’ understandable desire to keep the levy flat on this potential bond issue, they had to pick and choose their top priorities. Their conclusions indicate much about the district’s aims.

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