Oklahoma high school sports: School officials preparing proposal to help level playing field for teams with long-standing struggles

BY SCOTT WRIGHT, Staff Writer, swright@opubco.com Published: September 15, 2012
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photo - U.S. Grant players hold their helmets up after a 2011 scrimmage at U.S. Grant High School. Photo by Zach Gray, The Oklahoman Archives
U.S. Grant players hold their helmets up after a 2011 scrimmage at U.S. Grant High School. Photo by Zach Gray, The Oklahoman Archives

The three men behind this new proposal don't want this process to be a battle of them vs. the OSSAA, and they don't want it to be as adversarial as the public-private debates were.

They want this to be a joint venture to best serve the state's high school athletes, to improve the method for classifying teams in hopes of leveling the playing field.

The OSSAA adopted rules in 2011 to address issues concerning the success of private schools, so Sinor sees this as an opportunity to address the teams regularly coming in at the bottom of the standings, too.

The proposal's targets are the programs that have been struggling for years, maybe even decades. Programs like U.S. Grant and Capitol Hill football, which can count their playoff appearances of the last 30 years on one hand — places where, as the proposal states, “ignoring the problem or telling them to ‘get better' is no longer a viable option.”

And it's not just about football, either. This is designed to apply to all sports.

The proposal includes other ideas, like different methods for dividing classifications, and another option for allowing struggling teams to play each other in an independent league.

There are many questions left to be addressed, and hurdles to be cleared. The public-private debate went on for more than two years before new rules were settled on.

OSSAA Executive Director Ed Sheakley said he hasn't seen anything yet, and would reserve his comments until after a proposal is made

“We met with Keith Sinor and Robert McPherson (of the state Department of Education) last spring and they discussed their concern about the U.S. Grant football team in Class 6A,” Sheakley said. “But we wouldn't be able to comment on it until we've received the proposal.”

Sinor, Cloud and Balenseifen plan to meet this week in hopes of finalizing the details of the proposal to present it to the OSSAA as soon as possible.

The numbers — 50 percent free/reduced lunch and three years below a winning percentage of 30 percent — aren't set in stone. The proposal is up for debate, and the three men involved are ready to talk about it.

In fact, that's the biggest point of the initial proposal — just starting the conversation.

“We're trying to look at the problem, trying to make things fair,” Balenseifen said. “If it was important enough to make competition fair involving the private schools who are having success, then the opposite ought to hold true as well.

“We're not talking about winning championships. That was the concern with the private school rules. Our basic concern is that we want kids to feel like when they go out to a game, it's a fair competition.”

The idea has been bubbling up for a while. Sinor has discussed it with fellow athletic directors and coaches, even the Oklahoma City Council.

“This is about a level playing field, and the safety of our athletes,” he said. “Everybody sees that there's an issue here, and something has to be done for the kids.”


The proposal's key criteria

The criteria in the proposal designed by Oklahoma City Public Schools athletic director Keith Sinor, Tulsa Public Schools athletic director Gil Cloud and Putnam City Schools athletic director Dick Balenseifen is nearly a reverse image of the criteria laid out in the OSSAA's rules governing private-school success.

1. The school has open enrollment (public school).

2. Greater than 50 percent of the children enrolled at the school in grades nine through 12 qualify for free or reduced lunches.

3. The school has a winning percentage below 30 percent the past three years.

For a team meeting all of those criteria, it would be lowered one classification by the terms of the proposal.

For the 2011-12 school year, 61.7 percent of the state's total student population (grades K-12) were on free or reduced-cost lunch, according to the Oklahoma Department of Education. The numbers are generally lower by district at the high school level, but the 50 percent mark will still include areas beyond those schools considered inner city.

Of the Oklahoma City Public Schools, only Classen School of Advanced Studies is below the 50 percent mark. All of the Tulsa Public Schools high schools surpass 50 percent. Several rural Oklahoma schools pass the 50 percent level as well.

Here are some examples of public schools at Class 5A and above that have more than half of their high school students on free or reduced lunch, thus already meeting two of the three criteria:

Del City

El Reno

Enid

Guthrie

Lawton High

Midwest City

Muskogee

Noble

Putnam City

Putnam City West

Sand Springs

Shawnee

Western Heights

Opting out: The proposal's Plan B

The authors of the proposal stress the fact that they believe something must be done to protect the athletes at long-struggling programs and give them a better chance to compete. The motivation isn't about having a better chance at winning championships in OSSAA competition, a point that was made with the proposal's Option No. 2.

If the OSSAA is against the idea of allowing certain teams to drop in classification, the proposal offers the idea that teams meeting the same three criteria of the initial proposal could opt out of OSSAA play — including district play and playoffs — to create a schedule or league with other schools in the same situation.

“This would not totally eliminate the great disparity that currently exists but it would certainly go a long way in giving schools the opportunity to rebuild programs and give our student athletes a better chance of competing,” the proposal states.

The proposal suggests strict deadlines for teams notifying the OSSAA in a timely manner of their intent to be independent, and maintains that all independent teams would continue to follow OSSAA guidelines and policies.

Currently, OSSAA rules prohibit a school from withdrawing from the OSSAA to become independent in one or a small collection of sports. If a school wants to be independent in one sport, it must be independent in all sports.

Proposal suggests Super-Class

The idea isn't new. Call it Class 7A, or the Super-Class, or in this case, 6A-plus.

It's the idea of breaking off a small set of the top schools in terms of average daily attendance to make a new class, primarily for football.

The proposal calls for the top 16 teams to be in 6A-plus, which would significantly decrease the disparity between the top and bottom of the current 6A.

According to the average daily attendance from 2011-12 used to set the classes for most of the current year's sports, Broken Arrow is the largest with 4,586.21 students. Tulsa Washington is the smallest 6A school at 1,287.39, a little more than one-fourth the size of Broken Arrow.

If the top class was limited to 16 schools, based on current numbers, Norman would be the 16th school at 1,728.94, not quite half the size of Broken Arrow, but more than half of Jenks' average attendance of 3,077.47, which is third-largest in the state.

The proposal also suggests doubling the number of teams in Class 4A football from 32 to 64, and eliminating Class C, which would not increase the total number of classifications.

In the 6A-plus proposal, the 16 largest schools make up 6A-plus, and the next 32 would fill 6A. That would be the schools ranking in attendance from No. 17 to No. 48 in the state. The next 32 would make up 5A, with classes expanding to 64 teams in 4A.

The general idea is that reclassifying teams in this way would narrow the gap of the sizes of schools competing in the same class, and keep the competition more equal.

The Super-Class idea has been on the minds of those at the OSSAA for some time, and would likely continue to be investigated regardless of the outcome of the new proposal.

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