GREENFIELD — Trustees from the South Monterey County Joint Union High School District heard from members of the Greenfield High School Speech and Debate Team at their Jan. 24 board meeting, during which the students asked for a resolution to the team’s suspension status and ongoing lack of team coach.
GHS Principal John McKenzie issued a letter to students that explained the team is only suspended, not canceled, pending the search for a new coach.
The letter outlined the beginning of the situation as Sept. 30, 2020, when the district received a resignation from then-adviser Gary Cohn. It was reaffirmed by an announcement of resignation on Oct. 2, and backed by a letter restating the resignation on Dec. 15.
The speech and debate team was officially suspended on Dec. 18.
“We all are actively pursuing a new adviser, and it is our intent as soon as we find somebody to remove the suspension and hopefully continue to be able to offer the program,” said Brian Walker, district superintendent. “That may sound a little hollow right now given where we are, but I am working very closely with our human resource department and we’re doing everything we can to try to find a replacement and continue the program.”
In McKenzie’s letter, he said there were opportunities to continue to compete.
“Students are not able to participate under Greenfield High School,” McKenzie said. “However, team or individuals may compete independently if so desired and able.”
Students objected to that point in their responses.
“This just shows how little everyone understands about our program,” said Maya Avalos, the team’s vice president. “We cannot compete without being tied to a school.”
Team members explained the California Forensic League, which oversees high school speech and debate programs in the area, requires a team be part of a school, meaning the GHS team cannot continue their participation while on suspension.
In addition, students made cases for why the program was so important.
“You saw kids stand up in front of a scary school board trying to defend something that’s difficult,” Cohn said. “These are the powers that be that they’re staring up at, and they stood there confidently and stated their case in a manner that should not have been so easily dismissed.”
Cohn declined to speak about his resignation as coach or the situation in general. While he is no longer the coach, he continues to work as a teacher at GHS.
“The effect this has on our kids is amazing,” Cohn said. “It is the only thing I’ve ever seen in teaching, ever, where you can see improvement from one day to the next.”
Denzel Isidro, one of the team members, spoke during last month’s board meeting.
“The program has been able to give students like us a unique opportunity to have our voices heard in some sort of shape and form. It has empowered us,” Isidro said. “We proved that kids from Greenfield can succeed in academic competitions like speech and debate.”
Alina Ramirez, the team president, has been in the program since her freshman year at GHS.
“My most recent speech was about anti-depressants and when I shared it with my class and competitors, I got a lot of comments … like ‘I’m not alone,’ or ‘I’m normal,’” Ramirez said. “It’s not just this little competitive team that talks about politics. It’s a lot more than that.”
Ramirez, currently a junior, called it an academic sport and noted the work put in by the 30 to 40 members of the team, sometimes putting in long practice sessions from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. She said GHS’s team was the only one in the county, but they were planning on working with the speech and debate class at Soledad High School to begin forming a local league.
Even with the era of distance learning, the debate team continued operation through online methods.
“We competed in tournaments in Iowa and Seattle and we’ve been doing really well,” Ramirez said. “When we were competing, we were placing almost every weekend, and if we weren’t placing, we were breaking into finals.”
Ramirez said the district’s job posting for a new adviser has been in place since October, but said the pay is so low it’s unlikely anyone would apply. The posted job opening on EdJoin shows an annual stipend of $3,151 to $3,882.
With the students having made their case and the superintendent having given his official statement on the matter, Ramirez said the debate team has not finished in their effort to get their team back in action.
“I want get this topic as an item on the school board agenda, that way they can’t just brush it off, they’ll have to speak on it,” Ramirez said.