Lilly rallies business leaders to back Ballard's preschool plan

The CEO of Eli Lilly and Company was among Indianapolis business leaders today who urged city leaders to embrace Mayor Greg Ballard’s $50 million plan to expand access to preschool in an effort to reduce crime as the political debate about the idea heats up.

“The time to invest in high quality early learning in this community is right now,” said Lilly CEO John Lechleiter. “Cities simply cannot be world class without offering access to a quality education for all of its citizens and that starts with high quality early childhood education.”

The pressure is on to find a solution to Democrats’ concerns about funding for the plan, and Lilly hosted about 50 CEOs, executives and community leaders from the city’s financial, health and human services and education sectors at their downtown campus to urge support for Ballard’s plan.

Lilly executives have vowed to work with other businesses to raise $10 million over the next three years for the preschool plan starting with $2 million from their foundation, but that investment is contingent on Ballard, a Republican, and a Democrat-controlled council working out a deal on preschool.

“Let’s show our political leaders that we aren’t going to sit on the sidelines,” Lechleiter said. “We’re going to get involved. None of us can afford to be on the sidelines of this issue.”

The mayor’s plan to fund preschool depends on eliminating the local homestead tax credit. That move would cost some Indianapolis homeowners an average of $22 per year that they now save from their tax bills, but Ballard said it would be worth it to support 1,300 more spots for preschoolers and to help local providers meet high-quality standards.

Some Democrats, however, have argued eliminating the tax credit would both cost some homeowners more and hurt the city’s 11 public school districts by also taking away more than $3 million they receive. They have promised to present an alternative funding plan. Ballard insists that school districts would benefit more by enrolling more incoming students who were better prepared to start kindergarten than from keeping their share of the tax credit money.

The clock is ticking to find a funding solution. The City-County Council’s finance committee is expected to consider the issue Tuesday. If council members want to use the tax credit as a funding source, it must decide to do that by its Sept. 22 meeting.

Other business leaders at today’s meeting echoed Lilly’s call for support.

“We’re here to talk about money and funding, but there’s another sense of urgency that’s not being talked about,” said John Hammond, a partner at Ice Miller LLP Public Affairs Group who was an adviser to former Indiana Gov. Bob Orr. “We’ve got this dilemma in our political and policy apparatus. I think I know what to do. We can walk out of here thinking we had a great discussion but there’s really nitty gritty things that have to get done, I presume, in the next several weeks.”

Jason Kloth, Ballard’s deputy mayor for education, said his office hopes to forge a compromise with Democrats but said time is short.

“If we want to do this through the elimination of the tax credit, it’s a matter of days and weeks, not a matter of months and years,” Kloth said. “I’d encourage all of you to reach out to counselors that you know. (Your influence) goes a very, very long way. We’d very much appreciate that.”

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat is a grantee of the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation.)