Democrats block funding for Ballard's preschool plan; meeting erupts

Indianapolis City-County Council’s finance committee voted to table funding for Mayor Greg Ballard’s $50 million preschool expansion plan and quickly adjourned a three-hour meeting tonight as several people hoping to testify for the plan shouted and jeered the public officials as they exited.

Council Democrats, who have criticized the mayor’s plan since he announced it in July, have objected to Ballard’s plan to raise revenue to pay for the preschool program by eliminating the local homestead tax credit. After pushing preschool to the end of a lengthy agenda, which included public testimony on other topics, the committee voted without hearing from the public.

It was a political setback for Ballard and for the possibility of expanded preschool. His plan could still be revived with a new funding source. A key Democratic council member has promised to present an alternative plan soon.

Ashley Thomas, who sat with her three-year-old daughter Hope waiting to speak in favor of Ballard’s plan to expand access to preschool, said she was stunned by the meeting’s quick end. She wants Hope to have the option of high-quality preschool.

“I really expected for them to want to hear from someone who would be affected by the changes that they make,” said Thomas, who is involved with the education reform advocacy group Stand for Children. “For them to just do what they did…it just makes you feel disappointed, to say the least.”

Republicans at the meeting decried Democrats for letting politics get in the way of preschool. Democratic Councilwoman Angela Mansfield, who ran the committee meeting, did not speak with reporters afterward and could not be reached for comment.

Republican Councilman Ben Hunter blasted her after the meeting’s end.

“It’s just a disingenuous effort and sad leadership on Mansfield’s part,” he said . “You let people sit through all of this and you hurt them at the end.”

Stand for Children Executive Director Justin Ohlemiller was among those who said they were still holding out hope that the preschool plan can be revived, perhaps by funding it another way. Democratic councilman John Barth has promised to deliver an alternative plan that would fund preschool within the existing budget, but he has not yet unveiled the plan.

As the committee met, Ballard and his staff touted the preschool plan to a small crowd across town at a Pike Township school auditorium. If Ballard’s plan is going to be funded by eliminating the tax credit, by law the vote must occur by Monday. That leaves little time to debate the idea.

“We were never wed to the homestead tax credit as the mechanism for funding early childhood education,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said. “We are optimistic that through ongoing negotiations with the council we will be able to figure out some alternative forms of funding. What is clear is that there is commitment to the notion of preschool on both sides of the aisle.”

A few of those who oppose eliminating the local homestead tax credit said they hoped officials can overcome their differences to still expand preschool. Ballard estimates dropping the credit could cost some local homeowners an average of $22 a year. There is also an estimated $3 million loss for the city’s 11 school districts.

“They’re going to have to do something, but it has to be affordable,” said Pike Township resident HeLoise Miller-Archie said.

Democrats have opposed Ballard’s preschool program from the start because of the cost to local school districts and other public entities.

Indianapolis Public Schools stands to lose as much as $730,000 annually from the elimination of the homestead tax credit, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district comes out ahead even if that happens.

That’s because the mayor will match city and privately-raised dollars to money IPS is spending on preschool for low income kids, which Ferebee said would more than offset the lost revenue. IPS has enrolled about 860 children in preschool this year.

IPS would also benefit, however, if a different funding source is found. That way, the district would keep the $730,000 and still receive additional matching dollars from the city and private donors to support its preschool programs.
“We can’t lose in that there is definitely a need for pre-K,” Ferebee said. “This plan addresses our most needy families. I don’t think anyone can argue with that.”

The City-County Council is expected to consider the preschool plan at its meeting Monday at 7 p.m.