Wearing white hard hats, the fifth graders from Saddlebrook Elementary School grabbed shovels and flipped the dirt in front of them.
This plot of tan dirt at 156th and Ida Streets in northwest Omaha will undergo a transformation in the coming years and become a high school with a shared YMCA facility.
But for this project, Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan said the devil is in the details.
OPS will have some exclusive space, the YMCA will have some exclusive space, and then there’s shared space.
The district and YMCA are still working on an agreement that outlines how and when the facilities will be shared.
And the YMCA is still in the process of fundraising $13 million for the project, said Chris Tointon, president and CEO of YMCA of Greater Omaha.
The $13 million includes the cost of the spaces exclusive to the YMCA, health and wellness facilities and the pool. Tointon said they want to raise the money before the facility opens.
“We’re confident that this is the right need at the right time and the community has bought in behind it,” Tointon said. “And we’re working really hard to get to 100% funding.”
Fundraising is at roughly $9 million, and the district has “every expectation of success,” OPS said in a statement.
Logan said she thinks the fundraising is in a positive spot and fundraising efforts have been “fruitful.”
“I’m confident that we’re on track,” Logan said.
The ceremony Tuesday was to celebrate the construction of the new OPS high school at 156th and Ida Streets. The new school will have the capacity for 1,500 students and the YMCA facility, with a pool that will be open to students and nearby residents.
OPS hasn’t opened a new high school since 1971. Now the district is in the process of building two new high schools to open for the 2022-23 school year.
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OPS is also building a school at 60th and L Streets. The district held a groundbreaking for that school earlier this month.
The district bought the land at 156th and Ida Streets using money from the 2014 bond issue. The school is being built with money from the 2018 bond issue.
Parents in northwest Omaha lobbied hard for the pool to be added to the new high school.
Tointon said the community surrounding the new school has been asking for a YMCA for many years, so when OPS started discussing a high school, they started discussing a shared space.
Similar school-YMCA partnerships exist in Lincoln at a middle school and an elementary school. Tointon said there’s an advantage to having high school students at the YMCA.
“We can do a gym class where at the end of the class they get certified in life guarding and have a job,” Tointon said.
In February 2018, the school board voted 9-0 to approve the project list for the $409.9 million bond issue. Included in the bond plans was a pool for the 156th and Ida high school, part of a tentative partnership between OPS and the YMCA.
At the time it was added to the bond issue project list, OPS and the YMCA signed a letter of intent, but that letter did not directly address usage or cost of the facility.
Letters and emails about the project obtained by The World-Herald through a records request show that earlier this year OPS and the YMCA were millions apart on how much the YMCA would contribute.
The emails show one school board member, Ben Perlman, repeatedly asked district officials about establishing a usage agreement before the bond vote.
Logan, who was not superintendent when the letter of intent was signed, said she believes there was good faith on both sides.
“Sometimes people interpret the same sentence in two different ways,” Logan said. “We’ve worked through it. And we’ll continue to work through it as we get this building underway.”
In addition to the fundraising, the YMCA and OPS also are working on an agreement about usage of the facility that will come before the school board.
Logan said they’re trying to create an agreement that allows students to have access to the facilities but also allows the YMCA to operate as a YMCA.
“It’s a give and take,” she said.