2016-11-11 / Community

Twirlers’ status still up in the air

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Kennebunk High School junior Chloe Leonard addresses the RSU 21 Board of Directors on behalf of the Kennebunk Twirlers at a school board workshop Monday, Nov. 7, at Kennebunk Elementary School. Although the Twirlers have resolved a recent crisis that left them without practice space in the wake of district-wide gym shortages during a yearlong school renovation project, the Twirlers, though founded in 1939, are still trying to cement their standing among other school-sanctioned activities. (Duke Harrington photo) Kennebunk High School junior Chloe Leonard addresses the RSU 21 Board of Directors on behalf of the Kennebunk Twirlers at a school board workshop Monday, Nov. 7, at Kennebunk Elementary School. Although the Twirlers have resolved a recent crisis that left them without practice space in the wake of district-wide gym shortages during a yearlong school renovation project, the Twirlers, though founded in 1939, are still trying to cement their standing among other school-sanctioned activities. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — Although the Kennebunk Twirlers have found gym space in RSU 21 for the winter season following a construction-caused shortage that left them frozen out in favor of other school activities — an administrative decision that created controversy online and the birth of a #SaveTheTwirlers movement — the troupe is still trying to cement its place in the extra-curricular hierarchy.

At a workshop session of the RSU 21 Board of Education at Kennebunk Elementary School Monday, Nov. 7, about 30 twirlers, parents and team coaches gathered to try and make sense of the fall lockout.

“We are not just an afterschool program,” Kennebunk High School junior Chloe Leonard said. “We are definitely a sport. We go to competitions. We just do the football games and parades as an extra to give back to the community.”

However, school board chairman Mary- Beth Luce, of Arundel, pointed out that, for school purposes, sports are those activities sanctioned by the Maine Principals Association (MPA).

“According to the state, [baton] twirling is not a sport that competes at any level,” she said.

Luce and other school board members who spoke paid props to the Twirlers, which have been a part of KHS life since 1939.

However, the organization is viewed as an independent organization by the school department, because it is not officially a part of the school system, or the recreation department of any member town.

According to longtime Twirlers coach Susan Plass, the group is organized as an independent nonprofit, operating under the 501 (c)(3) status of the Maine Baton Twirling Council, which itself falls under the auspices of the United States Twirling Association.

According to Superintendent Katie Hawes, that puts the twirlers fourth in line for dibs on gym time, under the RSU’s Use of School Facilities policy.

That official pecking order gives first priority to school groups, including MPA-sanctioned sports teams and school-based extra-curricular activities.

Next up comes school-related bodies such as the school board, or teacher organizations, followed by local government agencies and “responsible civic and social organizations,” including programs run through municipal recreation departments.

Only if none of those groups have reserved space can local “youth organizations” like the Twirlers set a claim on a gym. After that comes “all other groups” on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“They are not a school sport or club,” Hawes said in a prior interview. “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.”

As a result, the twirlers were nudged this fall in favor of sports teams when the $42.8 million high school renovation project took Gym C offline — it actually no longer exists, with a new one going up in its place — putting a premium on practice space.

The Twirlers, who generally practice at Sea Road Elementary School on weekday afternoons, were replaced by the high school wrestling and cheerleading squads. As a result, Plass says, the Twirlers — which include about 30 girls from age 5 up though collegiate-level baton masters — lost about 30 hours of practice time.

Alternate arrangements were discussed, such as having the wrestlers practice in the school cafeteria. However, RSU 21 Business Administrator Bruce “Rudy” Rudolph said that idea had to be discarded.

“I know we have done that in the past,” Rudolph said, when one parent said that’s where the wrestling team practiced when he was in high school. “But in all candor, with hygiene and body odor, and the issues around having sweaty teenage boys in the cafeteria for 10 hours per week, and then having meals there the next morning, was not something we felt was an appropriate solution.”

A similar loss of gym time was expected for the winter sports season, until an 11th-hour compromise was brokered between Plass and cheering coach Peggy Mowatt to share gym time.

“She was wonderful,” Plass said following Monday’s school board meeting. “As soon as she heard we were down on time, she said, ‘“I’d be more than happy to share my time.’”

With that settled, discussion at Monday’s meeting centered on the Twirlers’ status as a so-called “Tier One” claimant on gym time, on par with MPA sports teams and other extra-curricular activities. Although Hawes was not at Monday’s meeting — she was in the nation’s capital collecting a prize for federal recognition of Sea Road Elementary as a high-performing Blue Ribbon Award school — she did provide a Nov. 1 interpretation of the school policy, given by Ann Chapman of the RSU’s contracted law firm, Drummond Woodsum.

Chapman agreed the Twirlers land at Level 4 or 5 on the priority scale.

However, Plass and Twirler parents said they felt the baton twirlers are a Tier 1 activity, by virtue of past practice. The team is included in the yearbook, and runs a scholarship award with funds managed by the RSU.

Additionally, until she declined it in 2000 during a school budget crunch, Plass was paid a stipend to run the Twirlers.

Moreover, they say, they were made an official KHS club in 2005 by then-principal Nelson Beaudoin. Since then, Plass has met every Tuesday during the school day with high school members of her squad. However, this appears to be an archaic “advisory block” that applies only to the twirlers.

“No other clubs meet at that time,” Hawes 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.”

Rudolph reiterated that point Monday, saying the Twirlers do count as a Tier 1 activity, but only at the high school and only during the regular school day.

School board vice chairman Maureen King, of Kennebunkport, said the twirlers could be a Tier 1 club if they file an application with school board. If and when that form is accepted by the full board, it would cement the twirlers’ status as a school-sanctioned club going forward, she said.

That seemed to contradict prior statements made by Hawes, who wrote in an email to the Post that one reason the 2005 status is no longer valid is because the school board votes each year on which clubs and activities get the district’s blessing.

“Our clubs are approved annually and she [Plass] has not been approved since [2005] to my knowledge,” Hawes said.

In either case, twirlers and their parents complained that they had never been informed of a need to reapply for Tier 1 status.

“We were never contacted or informed of a need to fill out that form. This is the very first time we are hearing of a need to do that,” said Courtenay Kinney, a post-graduate member of the team.

“I think everyone agrees that was an oversight,” Luce said. “We’re not placing blame anywhere. I think we would just like to see an application come forward.”

Kennebunkport recreation director Carol Cook said she was “concerned” Tier 1 status for the Twirlers might allow it to bump her programs, but King said “that’s a little bit in the weeds at this point, for this discussion.”

As to why the twirlers’ status was not formalized before the gym shortage issue arose, King said there was no need to place a label on the team so long as scheduling time was not an issue.

“If it’s not a problem, we are not sticking our noses in it as a board,” she said.

Plass said she would take a look at the official extra curricular application, and decide whether or not it made sense to apply. One hurdle could be the fact that Twirlers pay annual dues to be a part on the group, with members of its competition team pay additional fees.

“No one has to pay to be a member of any school group,” King said.

Several parents in the audience pointed out there are fees charged to participate in certain events and activities, sometimes ranging as high as $175 or more. Some school board members compared the Twirlers to a sailing club recently sanctioned by the board. However, if Plass chooses to apply for official recognition, there is no guarantee the board will sign off on acceptance of the Twirlers as a Tier 1 activity with priority access to gym time.

“We should put a lid on it so that one group can not dominate use of our facilities,” school board Mike Mosher of Kennebunk.

“This community is far richer for having the Twirlers. I’m hopeful that going forward can work things out so these issues won’t arise again,” school board member Emily Kahn, of Kennebunk said. “But I do think there is a substantive difference between a school activity, because they are subject to the school’s authority, which sounds much different [from the Twirlers].

“I appreciate everything they do, but there’s a reason those distinctions are the way they are and we are going to have to look at those issues as part of this application process.”

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

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