The Omaha Public Schools board is one meeting and one final vote away from adopting a revamped high school athletic eligibility policy requiring students to earn a minimum 2.0 GPA.
The school board voted unanimously Monday in favor of the new standards. Because all new policies require two votes, the board will take a second and final vote on the policy at its next meeting, Dec. 2.
Board members have spent hours since March debating the necessity of stricter standards for student-athletes that go beyond state rules that rank among the most lax in the Midwest, if not the country.
On Monday, board President Justin Wayne said it was time to act.
“It's about implementing consistency in our district, about raising our standards,” Wayne said.
The board reviewed four possible policies, including one that would require students to pass six classes. The option it ultimately supported requires a minimum 2.0 GPA and has a no-pass, no-play provision.
Currently, OPS follows the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) eligibility guidelines, which require students to pass four classes to participate in sports and other NSAA-sanctioned activities. Those activities include all sports and music, which encompasses various bands and choirs, as well as debate, journalism, music, play production and speech.
Under the NSAA standards, a student could get four D's and three F's and still be eligible to play, a policy several school officials called woefully undemanding.
If adopted in two weeks, the new policy would be phased in over the next three years, giving the district time to monitor and tweak the eligibility requirements as they gradually are implemented.
The 2.0 standard would go into effect for the first time in 2016-2017. Current high school student-athletes are required to attend academic coaching sessions if their grades dip below a 2.0 or they are failing two or more classes.
The no-pass, no-play element means that students must pass all classes to compete. Students still could practice if they didn't meet eligibility standards, but they couldn't suit up for a game or competition.
A student would have to earn either a 2.0 term GPA — the GPA logged for the prior and current quarter — or the student's GPA could be cumulative, over the life of his or her high school academic career.
The cumulative option was pressed by board member Marian Fey, who said an otherwise stellar student could be hobbled by one bad semester. Counting a cumulative GPA could allow that student to participate if his or her overall GPA ranked above a 2.0.
“It really provides protection for the good student, the student not struggling but who might stumble and have a bad semester,” Fey said.
Under the term GPA requirement, a football player could be eligible to play for the first quarter based on his grades from the prior year but be benched during the playoffs in the second quarter if he fails a class or falls below a 2.0 GPA that first quarter.
There are exceptions to the policy. It excludes special education students and allows for the use of a one-time waiver in extenuating circumstances, such as an illness or death in the family that might cause a student's grades to plunge.
At one point during Monday's discussion, board members Yolanda Williams and Lacey Merica said the board should present the eligibility options at a community forum, where more feedback from parents and students could be collected.
But Wayne said parents and community members had months to weigh in on the GPA issue.
Superintendent Mark Evans said that now it's the state's turn to raise the bar.
“It's incumbent on us to work with the Legislature and governor to put pressure to bear on the whole state to move in this direction,” he said.