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In The Public Interest: Debates And Public Forums To Educate Local Voters

Lisa Barry
89.1 WEMU

This week on “In the Public Interest," our bi-weekly conversation with the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area, 89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry talks to several guests about candidate and issue public forums organized by the league.  Jeanine DeLay coordinates the events and is joined by local high school debate teachers Shelly Venema and Debora Marsh.

About the Issue

In 2016, the LWV-AAA expanded their forum program on CTN to include high school debates of local and state ballot proposals with the aim of giving voters well-considered views of these proposals.  This year, two Washtenaw County high schools, Saline and Dexter, will be debating the marijuana legalization and redistricting ballot proposals respectively.  Both the Saline and Dexter teams are stellar debaters--each team has won many awards and competitions.  Their coaches have also been recognized for their excellence.

About the Guests

Jeanine DeLay - A League member for over a decade, Jeanine has served as the local League candidate forum coordinator...and thus signed off on email invites to candidates as "The League Forum Lady."  Highlights of that time include working with CTN to get video on demand capabilities for viewers; ensuring that all parties fielding candidates had access to and opportunities to express their views at candidate fora; and expanding the fora to include "down ballot" candidates less well-known to voters. - but whom voters are interested in hearing from and learning about - including the AA Library Board, WCC Trustees, Washtenaw County Sheriff, District and Trial Judges.

Shelly Venema is the coach of the Saline Debate team.  A teacher since 1992, she has been coaching the Saline High School Ethics team since 2014 and coaching Public Forum, Congressional, and World Schools debate in Saline, MI, since 2013. She has won awards for her debate coaching, including in 2016-17 “Debate Coach of the Year” by the Michigan Speech Coaches, Inc., and the “Elice Howard Debate Coach of the Year” in 2017-18 by the Michigan Interscholastic Forensics Association for her service to the debate community.

Debora Marsh is the coach of the Dexter High School Debate team.  She is the AP/IB Coordinator, English Department Chair, the Advisor of the National Honor Society, the Director of Debate and Forensics, and the Advisor for Starboard the Creative Writing Club at Dexter High School.  She has won many awards throughout her career, including the National Federation Interscholastic Speech and Debate Association NFHSDA Outstanding Speech and Debate Educator Award in 2001 and 2015.

How the League is Involved in High School Debates

The League of Ann Arbor is well known for its all-parties inclusive (and thus nonpartisan!) candidate forums locally, having a candidate forum co-sponsorship with CTN for more than 2 decades. For the 2016 election, we expanded our forum program to include debates of local and county ballot proposals.  We wanted to have a fresh look at the issues, where those introducing the arguments were removed from the fray, had no conflicts of interest and were less likely to spin or stick to talking points.  Further, we knew that voters wanted a format where the debaters had congenial rivalries and could see through attempts to raise the political temperature by engaging in shouting matches. What better group to invite to star in this new project than area high school debate teams?

The program we started in 2016 is original.  And we think it is the only high school debate program in the nation sponsored by the League.  What makes it unique--and important- is that the students are not presenting their arguments in a competition.  Rather they are introducing their positions to voters, who will then determine the results on citizen initiatives and proposals that will have a major impact on the residents of Michigan.

Not all schools have debate teams in Washtenaw County.  But three who stood out and have long-standing programs are: AA Greenhills School; Saline High and Dexter High School.  In addition, Washtenaw Technical Middle College has a class, taught by an English department instructor, which focuses on research, teamwork and public speaking skills, all essential for good debates.

Our first debates were about local and countywide ballot issues. Ann Arbor Greenhills School participated in the first debate about the AA elected official term extension (2016); Washtenaw Technical Middle College students debated the Ypsilanti Water Street Millage (2017); and Saline High School discussed the mental health services proposal (2017).

These debates are Oxford-style or public forum style debates.  They last about 40-50 minutes.  The format includes timed opening statements; rebuttals; a question period by the moderator; and closing statements.  Two students outline the "for" position; and two the "against" position.  The research, however, is done by the entire team.  They are just not on camera...but are invited up to be recognized, along with their coaches at the end.  The moderators are: John Chamberlin and Erin Mattimoe.  League members serve as timers.

For the November 6, 2018 election,  Saline High School will be debating the marijuana proposal.  Dexter High School will be considering the redistricting proposal.  The debates are set for Wednesday, October 3, 2018.  They will be broadcast live on Channel 19 at CTN Studios in Ann Arbor.  It will also be livestreamed. The marijuana proposal debate is at 7pm.  The redistricting proposal debate begins at 8:30pm.  CTN will rebroadcast the debates as well as offer them on video on demand and the CTN YouTube channel before the November 6th election.
About the Saline High School Debate Team

Mentored by Debora Marsh, the coach of the Dexter Debate Team, we started the Saline Debate Team in 2013.  Since that time, the team has been competing successfully in Public Forum debate at the state and national levels. In 2016, we added a middle school debate team.  Nine members of the debate team are participating in the debate on the legalization of marijuana, although only four will be seen on camera.

The public forum debate team has won the state championship for the last three years; the varsity team has placed in the state quarter finals and finals for four of the last five years; the team earned the George Ziegelmueller (Ziggy) Award in 2015 as the top debate team in Michigan, bestowed by the Michigan Interscholastic Forensics Association.  And, the team won two bids to the national finals (competing in Public Forum and World Schools Debate.  Although they’ve been competing for only two years, our middle school team has won the nationals twice.

About the Dexter High School Debate Team

Dexter High School has been involved in competitive debate at both the state and national level since 1994.  Three years ago we added Middle School students to our team.  Our team has 34 students ranging from grade 7-12.  Nine of them are working on this debate.  We understand that only 4 of them will be speaking during the debate, but they are working together to help make this a great debate for the community.

Dexter has won many state championships at both the Novice and Varsity level, winning the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA) Public Forum Varsity State Championship three years in a row (2012-13, 2013-14, and 2014-15), and we've been semifinalists in the past couple of years.  At the Michigan Speech Coaches, Inc. Spring Event this past May, we were 2nd runner up, and we had 5 of the top 10 speakers in the tournament.  In February of last year, we qualified a Public Forum team to the National Speech and Debate Tournament.  Our Middle Schoolers have also distinguished themselves, coming in 3rd at the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA) Middle Level State Championship, last year, where three of the top 10 middle school student speakers were from Dexter.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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