Op-ed: River Forest voters see the value of education

Reposted from NWI Times

Last week, voters from the River Forest Community School Corp. went to the polls for a second time in five years to support a referendum to increase their property taxes. This was to prevent a fiscal cliff, or $600,000 loss due to the property tax caps that go into full effect next year.

The new action replaced and eliminated a previous ballot initiative that was approved in 2014 with nearly 69% in favor.

This was the highest support for a school referendum in Northwest Indiana since 2009, second only to Crown Point in May 2018. While school finance is no easy subject, it is imperative for taxpayers to understand why the school sought more financial support while knowing the tax caps were on the horizon for 2020.

Although the tax caps were originally passed in 2008 and placed into the Indiana Constitution after a statewide vote in 2010, Lake and St Joseph counties were given an additional 10 years to better handle existing debt obligations.

In 2008, River Forest took on debt to remodel after a school fire.

Even though it is in the best interest of the taxpayers, the school is not allowed to refinance or pay off common school loans early.

While the loans predate the tax caps, the school was also denied the ability to keep two old loans exempt from the caps. Since reasonable solutions could not prevail, asking the community to pay the bill was the only option left.

The way the state is set up, local governments have little taxing authority. They are incentivized to do whatever it takes to keep property values as high as possible to collect more taxes to support basic infrastructure such as fire, police, roads and schools.

While many socioeconomic elements are at play for residential property, a thriving business community is one of the keys to generating such revenues.

Even though East Chicago, Hammond and Gary have always been seen as the deindustrialized core of The Region, they possess assets that generate large tax revenues and have other economic anchors that have been underutilized for decades.

River Forest is not home to any colleges, casinos, steel mills, much less transportation assets like an airport or a South Shore station. When looking at the assessed value of property by school district in Northwest Indiana, East Chicago leads the way at $466,765 per student, but River Forest ranks dead last (23rd) at $96,903.

Unlike other historic communities in Northwest Indiana, River Forest does not have a downtown ripe for gentrification or business development. The district pulls students in from New Chicago along with kids from parts of Gary, Hobart and Lake Station. Because of this, the school system has become the center of the community. Out of 23 public school districts, River Forest ranks 21st in Capital Projects Funding and 20th in transportation.

Despite the lack of resources, River Forest has tried to be a good steward of taxpayer money as it has one of the lowest debt service-to-student ratios in Northwest Indiana. To its advantage, the quality education that River Forest provides has helped it grow from 1,393 students in 2013 to 1,640 in 2018. While this doesn’t seem like much, a majority of the school’s support comes from the state funding formula and is determined by population amongst other factors. At $6,800 per student, small schools need every student they can get to fill seats in classrooms.

Despite being from a poor area, voter chose to double down and continue to invest in their community and support the leadership by teachers and administration at River Forest. They brought the school’s state report card from D up to B in recent years.

With 75% of the student population on free/reduced lunch, the kids regularly outperform their poverty by finishing near the top in state competitions like LEGO Robotics, Academic Decathlon and Spell Bowl. Community pride and strong work ethic has helped these kids overcome adversity. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and River Forest is that small community, making the investments needed to build the next generation of leaders, ready to take on whatever may come their way

Robert Ordway is a 2003 River Forest graduate and Eli Lilly Endowment Scholar. The opinions are the writer’s.

Op-Ed: Rally around commuter rail expansion in NWI

Reposted from NWI Times – April 12, 2017

Northwest Indiana has before it one of the greatest economic development opportunities since the founding of U.S. Steel. Elected officials across the Region will be tasked with political obstacles at all levels of government. But as the stars slowly align, it is time to double down on double tracking the South Shore Line.

The South Shore Line was built 104 years ago, and it has experienced a life much like our steel industry, financial boom and decline. By some miracle, Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties came together in 1977 to salvage the “Slow Shore” out of bankruptcy. Like the Gary International Airport, our commuter rail system is an underutilized asset with far greater potential.

If only we gave it the attention it deserves.

The benefits of double tracking and building the West Lake Extension go beyond shorter commute times to both work and play. Those living along the new route will experience increases in property values. Labor leaders will put their workforce to task on a project they can take pride in for generations to come.

Fewer idling cars along the highway and local roads will lead to an improvement in air quality and, hence, reduced cancer rates.

Rail also helps concentrate populations, which reduces urban sprawl and gridlock that so many Chicago suburbanites experience daily. The Region’s most vulnerable residents, in north Lake County, will have better access to jobs in the city, which pay, on average, 33 percent more.

The aforementioned ideas are not mine but merely a reflection of local public opinion collected in the 2015 Northwest Indiana Poll conducted by One Region, along with research from its 2016 Indicators Report.

My experience with promoting regional transit initiatives has taught me one valuable lesson: Timing plays a critical role in politics. Witnessing the early successes of Valparaiso’s V-Line and Chicago Dash, I was inspired to serve as the chairman of a political action committee that supported the creation of a Regional Transportation District. Slated for the fall of 2009, Lake and LaPorte counties refused to hold the state-mandated referendum because of costs, and the measure was soundly defeated in both Porter and St Joseph counties.

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Just months before the referendum, the Democratic-led Porter County Council even voted to leave the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority altogether, but this lawsuit was rejected by the state a year later.

As the economy slowly recovered, so has regional cooperation. Renewal of RDA funding in 2015 not only was an achievement for our legislators, but others also now model it around the state. With the legislative session drawing to a close, Region lawmakers have successfully nested funding support for transportation in the state budget with backing from both Republican-led chambers, as well as Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The Federal Transit Administration has supported the project with a cautious hand. However, future funding is uncertain under the new presidential administration. In March, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky testified before the House Budget Committee on the importance of funding the South Shore expansion.

To be competitive in the process for the capital improvement grants, Northwest Indiana must meet federal benchmarks, along with a strong demonstration of community support. Given that, we must unify and advocate for efforts that strengthen us as a whole.

This is an investment in our future that will positively impact the quality of life for generations to come.

Op-Ed: #RegionProud

Reposted from NWI Times on April 3, 2016

Raised in Lake Station, I spent most of childhood plotting my escape from the Region.

In 2003, the Eli Lilly Scholarship took me to Purdue University. Just a year later, I transferred back to Valparaiso.

Upon graduation in 2007, I fled to Chicago to work in finance. Again, a year later, I found myself in graduate school at V.U. studying policy.

In 2010, I moved to Indianapolis to intern in the General Assembly and eventually landed a state job. Merely six months later I was called back home to NWI where I purchased a house in 2012. I have since worked or volunteered in just about every community imaginable. 

What kept me coming back? Optimism. As a self-proclaimed rogue sociologist and anthropologist, I have often wondered what has been holding the Region from reaching its fullest potential.

When it came to politics, economics, or race relations, all roads led to one answer: Fear. The fear of diversifying from the steel industry, the fear of someone who doesn’t look like me moving in next door, the fear of another community poaching a business, the fear of not being in control.

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It is this fear that paralyzes us from taking action, from listening and learning from others, from team-building, and, ultimately, from community.

It became clear that I needed to be a bridge, the connector that works to demystify the long-rooted misconceptions and stereotypes that perpetuate these fears.

I love attending both NRA and NAACP dinners and will go to any Region event ending in “Fest.” I enjoy the perspective of labor and management, and support results-oriented leaders regardless of their color or political stripe.

As a member of the Urban League Young Professionals and Young Leaders United, I am excited about the next generation of leadership from Gary to Valpo. Given my life experiences, I see nothing but opportunities ahead for all communities in NWI. I believe in the future. I am #RegionProud.