2016-10-28 / Front Page

Twirler controversy: Spinning out of control?

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Usually, baton twirlers don’t mind having things up in the air.

In fact, they thrive on it. But uncertainty over the status of the Kennebunk Twirlers as a school-sanctioned activity in RSU 21, which has recently resulted the loss of gym time, has the team taking to social media with the plea, #SaveTheTwirlers.

The controversy spins on whether or not the twirlers deserve to get bumped by other athletic teams and afterschool groups thanks to a policy matrix that puts them fifth in line behind other claimants on gym time.

The back-of-the-bus direction is because, in the eyes of the school district, the twirlers are organized as an independent nonprofit group, not a school team.

Save The Twirlers supporters say the team, which dates its lineage to 1939, is a school sport by tradition and practice, if not technical incorporation.

“We’re in the yearbook as the Kennebunk High School twirlers,” said junior Chloe Leonard. “We raise money for scholarships and the school handles that money. To now be told that we have a lower standing that other school teams, that we count for less, that’s been kind of devastating.”

“My daughter can’t understand it, because they do so much,” said Dr. Danielle Dillman, whose 10-year-old daughter is on the team, which includes about 30 girls from age 5 up through collegiate-level baton masters.

“Those girls are constantly giving back,” Dillman said. “They’re at every festival, every football game, every parade. Wherever you see the vibrancy of our community, those girls are there. They are such a part of the fabric of our community, and to see that community, which is normally so inclusive, now targeting and excluding them, the girls feel very devalued and disrespected for what they do. They can’t even wrap their heads around it.”

The twirlers have historically reserved time in the gym at Sea Road Elementary School in Kennebunk from 3 to 9 p.m. three days per week, year-round. However, the ongoing renovation project at Kennebunk High School created some shuffling, and the need for other teams to use Sea Road.

“With Gym C under construction at the high school, we need the Sea Road gym for high school wrestling and cheering,” RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes said. “We have made it work so far and think we can find them gym space at Kennebunk Elementary School after Feb. 14. However, for winter sports, which start Nov. 21, we do not have a space for them.”

According to Kennebunk Twirlers coach, Susan Plass, making it work meant the loss of 30 hours of practice time for her team during September, as well several hours in early October, until her schedule was restored with the end of the fall sports season.

Plass said she does plan to take Hawes up on an offer to use the Sea Road cafeteria — although that’s only an option for her youngest members, she said — but that still leaves the twirlers out in the cold come winter. Plass claims other gyms spaces in the district went unused in September while the twirlers were shut out — “So, I’m not really sure if this is all about Gym C or not” — but Sea Road remains the best alternative for younger team members.

Hawes said there’s little she can do.

“They are not a school sport or club,” she said. “We have discussed that possibility with them and they are not interested in falling under us. They are also not interested in becoming part of parks and recreation. They prefer to stand alone as an independent entity. So, our hands are tied by the policy.”

The Use of School Facilities policy prioritizes use of spaces like the Sea Road gym first to school groups, including sports teams and extra-curricular activities, then to officials school-related bodies, such as the school board, or teacher organizations, followed by local government agencies and “responsible civic and social organizations.”

Only if none of those groups call dibs does the next claimant, “youth organizations,” get a reservation. After that comes “all other groups” on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Questions over the twirlers’ status have raged online, both before and after creation by Leonard and her peers of the #SaveTheTwirlers campaign.

“They think that I don’t care about them, that’s what they’re saying in all the backlash on social media, but that’s just not true,” Hawes said. “I feel like they do give back a lot to the community, although that’s not what they are saying online about me.”

Still, Dillman says the need for downtime of the high school gym has been known for at least a couple of years.

The logistics should have been worked out and communicated to the twirlers long ago, she said, not sprung on them when Plass put in her annual request for gym time this fall.

“I think it’s just a crime to be pitting groups against other groups for resources in the community,” Dillman said. “To be putting the Kennebunk Twirlers against others for time to practice is, I think, very unfair. I feel they are being targeted because they are one of only two groups excluded from practice time.”

“I acknowledge they are not a school team, but as far as the policy goes, school clubs come under the first tier, and there is a twirlers club that meets on Tuesdays at Kennebunk High School. I think they are not being honored as a school group because Susan Plass opted to give up her stipend several years ago when there were budget issues. But superseding all that is 75 years of past practice.”

According to Plass, the twirlers were made an official school group in 2005 and she continues to meet with members of the team attending Kennebunk High School during the school’s advisory time.

She gave up the stipend in 2000, she said, and, while some social media commentators have claimed the twirlers is “a business” which draws dues from its members, Plass says those dues, as well as all money raised by the group not targeted to the annual scholarship drive, is used for competition fees, costumes and other costs.

“I put in between 30 and 50 hours per week, but neither I, nor anyone associated with the twirlers draws a salary check,” she said. “We do it for the love of the sport, to give back to the community, and the sense of family if creates for all of its members.

“In 2000 when I gave up the stipend the administrators asked me if I would continue the program as it had always been done and I said, of course.”

However, Hawes said the twirlers were an official KHS club only for the 2005-2006 school year. Authorization given that year by then-principal Nelson Beaudoin did not extend past that single season, she said.

“Our clubs are approved annually and she [Plass] has not been approved since to my knowledge,” Hawes said, adding that the Tuesday meetings of Plass with seven high school members of the Kennebunk Twirlers is an archaic timeblock of club time that applies only to them.

“No other clubs meet at that time,” she said. “This 20-minute block on Tuesday is something none of us are sure about the status of. Regardless, even if that is a club, the after-school times are private. Faculty advisors to school clubs sign a contract annually and get a stipend. And kids are not asked to pay for school clubs.”

At this point, the twirlers are hoping to get a definitive ruling on their status as a school club, and their placement in the pecking order for gym time, in a meeting before the school board policy committee on Nov. 17, just prior to the upcoming winter lockout.

“We’re just hoping to be recognized for all we do,” Leonard said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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