20 for 20

My youngest and I in Charity Village after the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Go OE.

Folks running a marathon to raise money for charity is kind of a cliche these days. Cool, yeah, but not that unusual. Roll back the clock 18 years though, and it was a bit of a novelty. In that environment the OE Runners were born. The group trained for and ran the Chicago Marathon to raise money for Opportunity Enterprises, an organization that serves individuals with disabilities in the Northwest Indiana area.

In that first year, 1999, the team started with 72 runners who collectively raised $37,000 for OE. The runners in their orange moisture-wicking shirts became a fixture on the streets and trails around here, and took Chicago by storm, becoming an official charity partner. The team membership topped out at 511 runners and a reached a high-water mark fundraising of $286,000.

That is a lot of miles and a huge amount of money for any non-profit agency.

The Great Recession took a bite out of our fundraising totals in the mid-2000s, and then (although we didn’t know it at the time), the marathon organizers dealt OE Runners a death blow. With demand for entries far outstripping supply (capped at 45,000 runners), the marathon instituted a lottery system a few years ago, and bumped up the fundraising minimum for charity runners. For a lot of us, it was way out of our league. In my 6 years with OE Runners, I came close to the new minimum one time. Mrs. Dull is a professional fundraiser; I’m not.

Last year: 70 of us raised about $45,000. Net out the training costs, and it was barely worth it for the organization. Thus the decision was made to close down the team. OE sent us off with a bang though: a few Saturdays ago the organization put on a fun run & farewell breakfast for all the team members through the years, giving us an opportunity to share some stories and to look at photos and team shirts from past seasons.

And: a thank you from the CEO. Pretty cool.

She laid out the numbers for us: in 18 years, OE Runners raised $3.2 million. That amount funds services to 20 families for 20 years. Which is awesome.


There’s a lot more families and a lot more years. Take a look at the Opportunity Enterprises Annual Report. Those services don’t come cheap. The money the OE Runners raised is pretty much a drop in the bucket. Hard to replace, but a sliver of the total operating budget. Who’s gonna pick up the tab?

I’m thinking a lot about sustainable funding these days. Whether most folks recognize it or not, the gravy train has left the station. We’re just used to thinking, “Oh, Washington will pay for that” or “Indianapolis will pay for that”, when the reality is, anything we want over and above the minimum, we’re going to have to find a way to pay for ourselves.

Enter the School Referendum.

ValpoGary. East Chicago. Munster. Lake Central. Hebron. And more.

My district passed twin referenda 2 years ago, to pay for a renovation and expansion of the physical plant, and to pay for salaries. Not every district can, or is willing to, raise its own taxes to pay the bills at the school. There’s a serious throwdown on social media over the EC vote this week.

Folks in my Tribal Homeland are pretty wound up about a potential tax increase for school funding.

Opponents of the referendum are circulating a flyer with salaries and recent raises for the highest paid central office administrators. Nothing dirty, all public records. But it’s having the desired effect. Man, it’s hard to ask people in one of the poorest communities in the Region to raise taxes on themselves.

Image via nwitimes.com. Story link

And it’s more than just schools.

Indiana is looking at a bill coming due for long-overdue infrastructure improvements. They don’t call this place “The Crossroads of America” for nothing. I think at one time Indiana had more miles of Interstate per square mile of area than any other state in the union. The statehouse just passed a tax increase on gas and vehicle registration, which led to predictable cries from political opponents. Why not tap a 2 billion dollar rainy-day fund, they say? Because that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of what needs done. Literally 10% of the total bill. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. With a business cycle that seems primed to turn down again.

I’m a conservative. I don’t want my taxes to go up one penny. And (not “but”) I also know that there is no free ride. Those roads and bridges aren’t gonna repair themselves. I voted yes on the Valpo schools referenda (and raised my own taxes) when I was only a resident & homeowner, not a district employee. Because the schools here (and in East Chicago, and Gary, and Hebron, and everywhere) are that important.

Somebody’s gonna pay the tab for taking care of our most vulnerable citizens, and to repair our roads and bridges, and to keep our schools up-to-date and safe for our students. Who’s it gonna be though?

Our kids. And grandkids, probably.

There are issues you just can’t run away from.


Go Make Salsa


Community Definition

In an atomized age when we all carry around our own personal supply of music and watch whatever shows we want whenever we want, the concept of “community” is fading.

Even in Indiana, where famously towns built high school gyms that could hold more than the entire community population (the biggest gym got to host the Sectional round of the state basketball tournament, see), we seem more like geographically-clumped groups of subdivisions rather than towns sometimes.

But when people vote with their feet, those towns that have a “sense of place” seem to stand out. We moved here 11 summers ago, knowing the reputation of the town, and in particular of the schools – no small thing for a family with two school-age boys. For a guy who considers himself more of a Chicagoan than a Hoosier, there was definitely some resistance to moving “out there”. When I was growing up, Valpo was so far away it had its own radio station. But the town has grown on me. It’s definitely been good to us.

I get “We Are Valpo”. I really do. It’s a real, live, community. Not just a place to park your car and lay your head inbetween work shifts.

The financial meltdown of 2008 devastated so many towns and families, many of which are still struggling to recover (even as it seems another economic downturn is just around the corner). It hit the schools a year or so later, after everything else in the budget had been cut to the bone, when the state of Indiana eliminated $300 million dollars in school funding. Most districts did what they needed to do to get by. Urban districts did what they have always done, which is to suck it up and get about the business of teaching kids. High-performing districts struggled for a way to keep funding their programs. Eventually, like a family facing a pay cut, districts needed to find a way to bring in more dollars. Only way that happens is to go to the community, make your case, and let the people vote.

Valparaiso Community Schools placed two referenda totaling almost $150 million on the ballot in Spring of 2015. It was an off-year, primary election, meaning ultra-low turnout. But of the folks who went to the polls, 66% voted to raise their own taxes to fund a major building project, teacher salaries, and programming.

Wow. As I told two assistant superintendents during the interview process, all school districts need more money. Not every community can step up, or is willing to step up, they way Valpo did. That tells me a lot about how this community values education, its families, its children, and its future.

Know what else? We owe them. Big time.

Big Yellow School Bus. Image via https://www.scholasticatravel.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/schoolbus.gif

So on Friday, as part of the two-day New Teacher Orientation, we embarked on the Valparaiso World Tour.

Me and 50 of my closest friends piled into a Big Yellow School Bus (yeah, that kind). No AC, 90 degrees outside, butt sticking to the upholstered seats. Did I mention we all made new friends?”

Image via https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/7c/83/62/7c83622184490a396cdbac31e2e370a8.jpg

So for four hours we made our way around the city, visiting every school (and some other points of interest), meeting principals and staff, receiving goodies.

Motto for the day: “Stress balls And Chocolate”.

The high school’s former longtime former football coach served as our tour guide. The man can still pump up a crowd, that is for sure.

Hoffy holding court. Photo credit: me.
Hoffy holding court. Photo credit: me.

Saw the construction Zone that will be my new classroom home:

VHS Construction Zone
VHS STEM wing: Under Construction.

Met a therapy dog at one elementary school, played Family Feud at the grade school alma mater of Jeff Samardzija, heard from folks for whom teaching here is the family business. Found out the Ivy Tech medical program has a $100,000 mannequin that sweats, has heart attacks, and gives birth. Stopped by the Boys And Girls Club. Met the Porter County historian, saw a Civil War-era opera hall, drove past a million great places to eat. All the while, we immersed ourselves in the The Community. We talked with people who have moved here, lived here, contributed here – with an inescapable message: You all are about to contribute here, too.

Count me in.

Of all the events of the day, my two biggest takeaways: The Porter County Career and Technical Center embarked on an alternative energy project a few years ago, with students in charge of the design, machining, installation and programming. That set-up generates 7.5  kw per hour, partially powering up the physical plant, and the surplus is sold back to NIPSCO. The profits help to fund the PCCTC programs.

At Parkview Elementary we learned  the school was the recipient of a $400,000 grant under a new state law for a dual-language immersion program that has kindergarten students learning Spanish. For real. The principal hopes to be able to expand the program to another grade each year.  That is kind of incredible. In addition, the students plant and maintain a school garden. Principal Anne Wodetzky boarded the bus with a basket overflowing with fresh veggies for us to take home.

Parkview Elementary garden goodness.
We Grow Together

Our instruction: Go make salsa.

As a long-time pico guy, I can tell you that is an apt metaphor for what we do. Every ingredient stands out on its own, but together they make something incredible. The basic ingredients are constant, but the chef gets to tweak things here and there, maybe making improvments on a classic.

This morning Mrs. Dull shared Ken Robinson’s TED talk from a few years ago. No coincidences, people. No coincidences. The money shot came at the 19:11 mark.

“We may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.”


Or as Valpo superintendent Dr. Ric Frataccia told us before we boarded the bus: “In 20 years, your kids are going to be you. They’ll be in charge of everything. And you will have had a part in helping them become what they will be.”

I still have a mountain of set-up to do and meetings to attend before I see my first class of students on Wednesday. But I was ready to go at 3:00 Friday. I’m sold.

A unified body of individuals. The people with common interests living in a particular area. An interacting population of various kinds of individuals. A Community.

We Are Valpo.