Hutton: High schools suffering from cash crunch
By Mike Hutton 648-3139 or email@example.com July 7, 2012 11:14PM
IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox listens as Valparaiso head basketball coach Joe Otis offer comments on class basketball Wednesday evening during an IHSAA Town Hall meeting at Merrillville High School. Otis coached LaPorte to the final four of the last single class tournament in 1997.| Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 9, 2012 9:44AM
It’s simmering outside and even hotter inside for public school budgets, where the finance directors have the toughest job in the region: trying to figure out exactly how much money they have in the bank for the upcoming school year.
Chesterton passed a referendum to help fund a $5 million shortfall.
Gary laid off 169 teachers last May to head off an $11 million deficit.
And in Valparaiso, Joe Otis, the Vikings basketball coach, had this infamous line recently when a proposed budget called for eliminating the pay for his seventh- and eighth-grade B coaches. Valparaiso finds itself with a $3.2 million deficit.
“I feel like my ox is being gored,” said Otis, who pointed out that represented a 38 percent reduction in his staff of 13.
None or all or some of this teaching/coaching carnage could happen, depending on how the final budgets for both Gary and Valparaiso turn out later this month. There are other school budgets in trouble, too.
There is usually a way to refinance or find a million here or there to at least save some of what is lost. Invariably, though, someone will have to walk the plank. Valparaiso athletic director Mark Hoffman took an early retirement to save a job or two. Other teachers and administrators have done the same thing.
Otis, 60, has coached for 26 years. He knows the game isn’t over until the final buzzer sounds but, like a lot of public school teachers, he is worried about what seems like a full-frontal assault on public education.
Charter schools are the rage these days, with Gary — which has 16 public schools and eight charter schools — leading the country in charter schools per city mile.
Tax collections are down because unemployment is up and home ownership is shrinking.
Collective bargaining has essentially been eliminated except for salary issues, leaving teachers feeling drowned out when it comes to having a voice in the process.
This has pitted departments against departments because everyone is facing the proposition of losing staff. At Valparaiso High, the proposed budget cuts also affect the music department. Otis is frustrated that this kind of angst has dominated the summer and has essentially pushed off the bigger issue of how and when Valparaiso is going to tackle the issue of a school that essentially needs to be replaced.
“These are difficult times,” he said. “Most of us see this as a dismantling of public education.”
He points out that won’t be good for a bedrock community like Valparaiso, where sports and public education have worked out beautifully for generations of families.
Otis graduated from Valparaiso High in 1970. He was born in Canada and raised fatherless, by a mother who cleaned offices at night for a living, along with Joe and two his brothers.
He had to borrow a car to get his driver’s license. He punched his ticket to coaching and education with a full basketball scholarship to Northwestern, where he averaged double figures his senior year. The thrill of his lifetime was a trip he took to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia 40 years ago with a barnstorming group of Big Ten players.
All of this was set up by the basketball scholarship he earned while playing under Virgil Sweet at Valparaiso High.
It was a priceless opportunity that wouldn’t have happened without good teachers, good coaches and basketball.
Valparaiso is still solid compared with the rest of the landscape in Northwest Indiana, but these simmering, below-the-surface problems are chipping away at the nobility of the profession. He knows plenty of his friends that haven’t had raises in three or four years. He worries about the future.
“The biggest problem is the uncertainty,” he said. “I just wonder if it will be attractive to young people.”
Otis isn’t going anywhere. He has weathered difficult times. He knows there could be some answer out there for all this that he just can’t see.
At least, he hopes so.