Well, she didn't really ask so much as rhetorically scold. That's o.k.—I know how hard it can be to switch from chewing out backtalking teenagers to having a genuine exchange of ideas with a fellow adult.
In case Mrs. Knowlton actually wanted an answer to her question, I would note that "behind the scenes" is exactly the wrong way to conduct public affairs. Folks in Madison and around the state get the feeling that their local and state governments are just good old boys' clubs that make their decisions behind closed doors to avoid public input and scrutiny. That impression weakens public confidence in their public institutions, which can translate into a lack of support, which can translate into a lack of funding (how of us want to hand more tax dollars to an entity we don't trust?).
Open government and open discussion of public policy build public confidence. When we discuss matters of public concern like keeping the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament in Madison, we should not seek to hide or narrow the discussion. We should seek input from as many perspectives as practical, so we can make decisions based on a variety of views about the value and practical challenges of hosting a debate tournament.
In that spirit, I reprint below my letter to the editor of the Madison Daily Leader, published Friday, November 21, on page 3. I also reprint because MDL doesn't have an instant comment section, and your comments are as important to public discourse as my conversation-starters.
To the Editor, Madison Daily Leader:
The Friday, November 14 Madison Daily Leader story on Madison High School's desire to scale down its support of the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament carried a number of statements that are, at the very least, open to debate, if not counterfactual. I have already discussed those statements online and in person with the Madison Central administration.
My greater concern, and the greater point missed in MDL's coverage of Mundt (as we debate veterans fondly call the tournament) is a practical one: If we downsize the tournament, which the school district appears to consider desirable and necessary, even if DSU helps, we will likely lose the tournament to Harrisburg or some other town. Coaches want their kids to have as many chances to compete as possible. Scaling down Mundt is like telling basketball teams that they can only bring their starters, no bench or JV, or that because our gym is a little small, we're only playing four-on-four.
Teams won't come to Madison for a smaller Mundt. They'll go to a tournament and a town that can find the resources and the ambition to host a full tournament.
The Mundt Debate Tournament is a great Madison institution:
- The contest honors Senator Mundt, one of numerous distinguished graduate of MHS and the Bulldog Debate Team.
- Mundt brings busloads of business to our restaurants and motels on an otherwise cold and quiet February weekend.
- Mundt showcases our high school and the DSU campus.
- Mundt helps build the Bulldog Debate Team and recruit new members, as it spotlights debate in our community, gives kids a home contest that Mom and Dad can easily come watch, and offers a team-building exercise as the students help run the tournament.
- It's an exciting competition, the last regular-season debate tournament, and a great learning experience for hundreds of kids from all over South Dakota.
Principal Sharon Knowlton has said running the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament is "overwhelming." If the school needs help running Mundt, my hand is up. I could set Mundt up and run it from my computer... from my couch, if I had to. Mundt certainly requires effort, but it does an overwhelming amount of good for our community.
Madison has a long tradition of excellence in speech activities, going back to Senator Mundt himself and the school's charter membership since the 1920s in the National Forensic League. A key part of that tradition is Madison's successful hosting of the Mundt Debate Tournament for 41 years.
If we say Mundt is too big, that we can't handle the contest without downsizing it, we will lose that tradition. Instead of asking how we can Mundt smaller, we should be asking what we could do to bring more kids to Mundt, to give more kids more educational opportunities.
We ought to do it, and we can do it. Let's keep Mundt in Madison!
[Cory Allen Heidelberger, Madison Daily Leader, 2008.11.21, p. 3.]
Can Madison High School host Mundt? Do we say we're too small to do big things? Or do we look beyond our limitations and find the spirit to be bigger and better?
As always, your public comments are welcome.