Foundation grants support forensics teams

Jeff Plinsky, who teaches and coaches debate and forensics at Lawrence High School.

Debate teams at Lawrence and Free State high schools are gearing up for one of the most important tournaments of the year Dec. 13-14 when they will compete for slots in the national tournament and a chance to bring home a national title.

But qualifying for the national tournament can be an expensive proposition, as Lawrence High School coach Jeff Plinsky found last summer when he drove four students in a van to the national tournament in Birmingham, Ala. And it might not have been possible without help from grants to each forensics squad from the Lawrence Schools Foundation.

Last year, the foundation awarded each school $3,000.

“Without these grants, instead of spending the month of May practicing, we’d be spending it fundraising,” Plinsky said “But because we have had this support, we’ve been able to work towards getting better, culminating last year in three of our four entries finishing in the top 60 in the nation in their respective events.”

This year, local schools will get something of a break on national tournament expenses because the event will be held in Overland Park. But the teams still incur other significant costs throughout the regular season.

Unlike the more high-profile school activities like football and basketball, which can generate a significant portion of their own costs through ticket sales and concessions, speech and debate teams rely heavily on direct support from their schools, as well as volunteers and community support so they can take part in tournaments throughout the state.

Each week, the schools send squads to multiple tournaments, some as far away as Pittsburg, Emporia and Wichita. That often means overnight hotel stays because the tournaments start on Friday afternoons, resume early the next morning and, depending on how far the students advance, can continue late into Saturday afternoon or evening.

If things go well, all of that culminates in a trip to the national tournament, a week-long event that can entail significantly more expense.

“Where this really plays an important role is in the socio-economic status of the students who qualify,” Plinsky said. “In eight years, we’ve taken six or seven kids (to nationals) who qualify for free and reduced lunch. For those kids, raising several hundred dollars to cover a week’s worth of hotel, food and travel expenses would be quite burdensome.”

After the qualifying tournament, known as the East Kansas National Forensics League District tournament, the next major debate event on the schedule is the 6A state championship tournament Jan. 17-18 at Blue Valley High School in Overland Park.

That marks the end of this year’s debate season, at least until the national tournament, and the beginning of the speech and forensics season, when students compete in events such as extemporaneous speaking and original oratory.

The national qualifying tournament for congressional debate will be held March 28-29 at Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park. For other events, the national qualifying tournament will be April 11-12 at Olathe South High School.