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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Madison High School Wimps Out, Kills Mundt Tradition

Hmm... maybe when my little one is ready to join the debate team, she can open-enroll in Harrisburg.

Elisa Sand reports what I've known since November, 2008: the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament is dead.

I knew Mundt was lost when I met with Madison High School principal Sharon Knowlton and superintendent Vince Schaefer in November, 2008 to discuss the school district's announcement that it would no longer host the tournament. Superintendent Schaefer seemed to be open to learning about the details of the tournament and considering ways to keep the tournament at the high school, but principal Knowlton appeared to be wearing the pants on the issue. Principal Knowlton made clear that she was fully invested in what I imagine was her overwhelmed debate coach's line that running a debate tournament is just too hard, a burden and not an honor.

Now yes, Dakota State University (my current employer) agreed to take on full hosting duties. Yes, DSU was willing to make every effort, even work around finals and graduation, to keep the Mundt Tournament in Madison. But when the high school wimped out, that was the end of Mundt. I knew this for three reasons:
  1. Coaches around the state see debate tournaments as ways to support the host teams. The host team doesn't have to travel. A big tournament helps build the team and raise funds through concessions. It gives the host kids a rare chance at home field advantage. Even though traveling to Madison was inconvenient, teams still came, because they wanted to support the Madison debate team. When the Madison debate coach and principal declared the Mundt tournament was overwhelming and not worth MHS's effort, other teams who regularly do the work of hosting tournaments felt snubbed, even insulted.
  2. Teams were thus more than happy to turn to a school that is willing to host: Harrisburg. Our Class A rivals are building a debate team from scratch. Harrisburg recognizes that hosting a tournament brings prestige and excitement to the debate team and the school as a whole. Harrisburg leaped at the opportunity, and coaches around the state were more than happy to take their kids to a high school that values debate.
  3. Against Harrisburg, DSU never stood a chance. Coaches around the state have been to DSU, and they know DSU does not have the space to conveniently house the sprawling Mundt tournament. Construction at the Science Center this year would have made hosting all the more challenging. Besides, DSU has no debate team or speech major. Why travel to Madison when traveling to Harrisburg will support an active and growing Class A debate team?
The "don't blame us!" spin continues in Wednesday's paper. Principal Knowlton says it was just too hard to host the tournament and schedule classes the same day. Of course, if losing a day of class was such a major issue, Madison Central would have scheduled class for this Friday now that the tournament is gone. They didn't; Friday is still a day off.

But not for me. I'll be judging... in Harrisburg.

I love judging so much that I won't notice my disappointment at the contest. I derive immense excitement from being around such smart and eager kids who will give up a Friday to make speeches and arguments in front of a judge. I love the chance to give kids pointers on delivery and logic. I enjoy dropping a few dollars in the bucket at the concession stand to help the local arts boosters.

But for years, I've gotten to enjoy doing those things in the halls of Madison High School on Valentine's Day weekend. Way back when, I won a trophy for speaking in Doc Miller's classroom. In the 1990s, I helped run the Mundt tournament, playing wingman to three different coaches before getting to run the big show myself, with the invaluable help of my dutiful debate team and lots of spreadsheets. I've come back to the contest as a coach or judge eight of the tournament's nine last years.

Now I lose that experience. I don't get to peruse the Bulldog memorabilia between rounds. I don't get to make the quick ten-minute drive home to my wife and daughter after the final round. I don't get to welcome all my friends in the debate world to Madison and point them toward the Dairy Queen or China Moon. I don't get to make the Madville Mundtster Award an ongoing tradition. I don't get to honor Senator Mundt or talk Mundt lore with coaches and debaters.

I lose... Senator Mundt loses... Madison loses a great tradition, because Madison High School, my alma mater, decides that after 42 successful tournaments, hosting Mundt is just too hard.

No excuses allowed: our public high school made a bad decision. Our public servants have killed a great debate tradition.


  1. I wonder if the powers that be would feel the same way about a sports function at the school???

    This has met the same fate as Destination Imagination (used to be Odyssey of the Mind) and the gifted program in Madison. Academics take a secondary role it seems.

    But you touch on another thing - this debate tourney brought dollars into Madison establishments, another thing that was just thrown away.

    Linda M

  2. Cory,

    The debate program at MHS took a hit on this one. It's a shame that traditions like the Mundt Debate Tournament seem to be kicked to the curb. MHS has had a long and successful tradition in debate. My wife fondly remembers participating in the Mundt Debate Tournament while attending Webster High School in the late 1970's. I hope the community will change it's mind and try to re-establish this event back in Madison.

    Tony Simons - MHS Class of 1973

  3. I wasn't a particularly active (or good) debater, but even so, this makes me sad. I have many good memories of debate, and it was always so fun to have it at home.

  4. Travis - attendee of Mundt since 19912/11/2010 10:44 AM

    Corey - I was a bit upset with the Madison Daily Leaders article - it essentially put all of the blame on Harrisburg High - needless to say I wrote a letter to the editor - here it is in case it isn't printed for whatever reason - I thought you might like it:

    I wanted to clarify a few things from Elisa Sand's article regarding the Karl E. Mundt debate tournament that is no longer going to happen this year. In reading the article, Elisa (and the people she interviewed) seemed to put the entire blame of the cancellation solely on the shoulders of Harrisburg High School. This is so far from the truth that I felt compelled to write this letter.
    I am the Head Debate coach at Washington High School and have been active in the debate community since I joined the Milbank debate team in 1991 and I have spent my share of overnight trips and hours of competition in Madison as a competitor, a judge and now as a coach. I am as saddened as anyone about the fact that the Mundt tournament is no longer - however, this is not because another school decided they wanted to have a tournament.
    The debate community is a small tight-knit group that is always trying to support one another. This is the case when it comes to hosting tournaments – no director or school will schedule another debate tournament to try and compete with another one in South Dakota. The reason one was scheduled in Harrisburg is because of the current debate program in Madison.
    Here are the facts: the Madison debate team has gone from one of the best in the state to being on life-support under the head coaching of Renae Nils, the direction of the Principal and the School Boards decisions. I like Renae, she is a very nice lady and I was hopeful for her success when she took over at Madison. Sadly, she has slowly killed the program there. Over the past few years, her participation in debate tournaments throughout the State has been minimal at best.
    We as a debate community were asking ourselves this question: Why are we supporting a program that doesn’t support ours? Here was a program that barely participates at all for the entire year and yet we were going to go to their school and try to promote debate. Why would we do that? Additionally, Madison High School stated that they no longer were willing to host the tournament, but maybe DSU could. While I have nothing against DSU, hosting a debate tournament that requires multiples rooms at a college just doesn’t work. Many colleges used to host tournaments but realized the logistical problems and decided to move on. Those include SDSU, NSU, USD and Augustana. So I applaud Jona Schmidt and her desire to host, without the support of Madison High School or a debate program there to support – it doesn’t make sense.
    Madison has a great history of debate. Karl E. Mundt was one of the founders of the National Forensics League, which is THE honor society for speech and debate in this country. Schools are awarded the Karl E. Mundt Award for excellence in Student Congress. There have been numerous graduates from Madison that have gone onto great things – sadly, the school has decided that greatness in academics and education can be pushed aside and not focused on – especially if it is “too difficult” in their eyes.
    I wish that the people of Madison would realize the potential that their students have and that the school has and be angered by what they have seen. Hopefully, they will get upset by what they see and demand that something be done to restore the debate program to what it can be.

  5. This is depressing. Despite my years of debate involvement, the most concrete memories I have of tourneys are the Mundt, at home.

    I'm sure that the football programs have taken significant hits, too, right?

    All because of that darned Tennis Dome...

  6. Good letter to the editor in the Daily Leader we got today. This issue plus the retire/rehire issue just might come back to bite the school district's opt out. The backhanded way the retire/rehire was conducted, plus the lack of emphasis on academic pursuits leaves a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to their asking for more money.

  7. Brett Kearin2/11/2010 9:20 PM

    Nice letter Travis. I share your thoughts on Harrisburg wanting to run a tournament. As Madison was busy looking for excuses not to host the tournament, the Harrisburg administration and coach Kip McKee were busy working towards building their program. I hope your letter get published so the rest of Madison can hear another piece of the other side of the story.

    See you & Cory in Harrisburg tomorrow to start a new tradition.

  8. Cory -
    A shame to loose the tournament. After debating at Webster in the 70s and judging for Washington while at Augie, I was away from debate until my daughters took it up for Watertown in the last few years. I am surprised about the number of schools that no longer participate. Loosing this academic based extra-curricular activity is a real shame. And you don't loose these in a sunami - it falls one tree at a time --- so the loss of the Mundt should be appreciated in that context. Pretty soon, the only way to keep debate will be to have a dunking contest between rounds!
    --Lee Schoenbeck

  9. Jordan Feist2/12/2010 10:47 AM

    I always enjoyed competing at Mundt. It was always the tournament before quals and it gave the deabters a chance to have a fun and test out new cases.

    The situation in Madison is truly unfortunate, but I am excited to see Harrisburg building a program. Although it's always sad to see a debate program die, it is always great to see a new program born.

  10. This is my first comment to your blog. I enjoy reading your detailed reports on the goings-on in the state legislature.

    As a former high school debater who participated at the Mundt Debate Tournament for many years, I too was disappointed to read about its unfortunate end. Some of the comments gave me the perception that speech and debate activities are dying in South Dakota, but that's clearly not the case. As long as you and so many others remain committed to the cause, this great activity will carry on. Congrats on the start of a new tradition Harrisburg! Good luck to all who go forward.

    Angela Hatton

  11. An anon. mentions that running tournaments is a difficult process and that tournament hosts usually rely on the kindness of others and especially of parents to get the job done. It's worth noting that, with online tournament management software, running tournaments has gotten much easier in the last few years. Coaches from around the state have always been willing to come help in the Mundt tab room. Locally, many Madisonites have been willing to come help by judging or providing food for the coaches and judges. Other parents have volunteered to come help teach extemp and policy debate at practices. We've even had one family make a huge donation (I've heard something on the order of $75,000) to support team activities.

    Yet with all those resources, the school has chosen to abandon tournaments and debate events, avoid recruitment, and let the team die. Travis is absolutely right: Madison can't blame any other school for losing the Mundt tournament and its great debate tradition. MHS has done the damage itself.

  12. [An anonymous commenter claiming to be an MHS student writes to defend Mrs. Nills and call the statewide debate community hypocritical for not doing more to support the Mundt tradition. I cannot verify the commenter's identity and thus delete it. I generally prefer to ignore anons, but this one requires a response, and this is the only channel by which I may offer that response. Anonymous student, feel free to contact me directly, or have your parents call me, and we can talk civilly and confidentially... although there is no reason for this conversation about our public school district to be confidential.]

    I did quite a bit to try keeping the Mundt tournament in Madison. In our November 2008 meeting, I made clear to Supt. Schaefer and Principal Knowlton (when she wasn't berating me like one of her students) that I was ready to help in whatever way they might want to help make the tournament happen at MHS. I spoke with other parents and community members who were willing to help make the tournament happen. Other coaches around the state offered to help MHS run the tournament (and regularly did, coming to work alongside the tournament directors the school hired to run the contest for the eight years of Nills's tenure as coach). Those coaches would have done the same this year, had MHS taken on the challenge.

    But despite all those offers of assistance, and despite the fact that for years the head debate coaching salary included the responsibility of running the Mundt tournament, and despite the fact that running tournaments is now easier than ever with tournament management software, Madison's head coach declined to learn the skills to run a tournament. The coach declined to advocate for it. Rather, the coach appears to have done everything to support the administration's position that running a tournament is just too hard for Madison High School.

    Many community members lobbied and offered solutions to keep Mundt in Madison, but that lobbying was futile against MHS's no-can-do attitude. I did everything I could to consult with DSU about what it would take to host the tournament on campus. I offered my services as tournament director. But it was too late. MHS made a decision that killed the tournament. The coaches care about the Mundt tradition, but they also care about providing the best possible educational and competitive experience for their students. At the point where Nills, Knowlton, and MHS abdicated their leadership role in supporting the Mundt tradition, coaches saw that Harrisburg could offer a better facility and better educational experience for their students in the last regular season tournament than the DSU campus could.

    By the way, speaking of commitment to education and competitive experience, where was the Madison debate team last Friday? I didn't see them competing at Harrisburg HS in debate. Did Coach Nills decide you needed another day off? If I'm counting correctly, while other areas schools have attended eight or nine debate contests this season, Madison has attended... what, four contests?

    There was no slander or inaccuracy in any of the public statements made by Mr. Kearin or Mr. Dahle. Madison's debate program has nearly vanished. Student opportunities have been severely weakened. A basketball or football or gymnastics coach who unilaterally declared she was cutting contests and events by more than half would likely face severe criticism. Mrs. Nills may be a kind and decent person, but she is not providing students with the kind of serious debate education that I expect my daughter to have when she reaches high school.


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