Ballard's $50 million preschool plan in peril

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s ambitious preschool program is in danger of being scrapped altogether after being stripped of its proposed funding method with no alternatives on the table.

City-County Council Democrats have said they are working to find another way to pay for Ballard’s $50 million preschool program — besides an elimination of the local homestead tax credit.

But nothing was unveiled at tonight’s council meeting except a statement from the council’s top Democrats that they would work to find an approach to fund preschool for 2016 — nearly two years from now. Until then, Council President Maggie Lewis and Vice President John Barth said children could be served next year by the state’s much smaller pilot program, which will reach nearly 800 economically disadvantaged four-year-olds in Marion County.

“We are committed to seeking an approach to fund pre-k for 2016 and beyond and look forward to working with entire community and the mayor to seek bipartisan solutions that are proven, and sustainable,” according to Lewis’ and Barth’s statement.

Ballard’s office said Monday that the Democrats were shirking their responsibilities to poor children by not passing his proposal, which would have served 1,300 children starting next fall, or proposing one of their own.

Also in jeopardy is millions of dollars from corporate partners led by Eli Lilly and Company, who have said they would raise $10 million to support a preschool plan if the City-County Council can forge a compromise.

The mayor was deeply critical of the Democrats.

“It is tremendously disappointing that council Democrats have chosen to abdicate their responsibility to our children and our city,” Ballard said in a statement released late Monday. “We have offered multiple funding proposals to provide high-quality pre-K to thousands of children from low-income families. The corporate community has been very clear that without sustainable funding from the city, we will lose millions of dollars in private sector donations. The public, my administration and Indy’s corporate community agree the time for action is now.”

Barth told Chalkbeat earlier this month he planned to unveil an alternative preschool proposal at tonight’s meeting, which would pay for a city preschool program within the existing budget instead of eliminating a local homestead tax credit as Ballard proposed.

(ExploreRead Chalkbeat’s coverage so far on Ballard’s preschool plan)

But Barth said today he shelved his plan because it didn’t yet have broad enough support to be successful.

“I don’t see any value in introducing my proposal if we don’t have a financing approach finalized that has broad agreement,” Barth said. “My approach is to do things in a bipartisan way and I’m looking forward to working on this over the weeks ahead.”

Ballard’s plan to eliminate the local homestead tax credit left a foul taste in Democrats’ mouths from the moment he announced it. Council Democrats say school districts and public libraries stand to lose too much money if that happens.

IPS, for example, could lose $730,000 annually, but Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said that cost would be made up by having better-prepared kindergartners and through new matching grant money coming to IPS from Ballard’s program.

Still, it looks like Ballard’s preschool plan is effectively dead unless a new funding idea is announced soon.

Tonight was the deadline for the City-County Council to vote on the elimination of the homestead tax credit, according to deputy Mayor Jason Kloth. But that plan was killed when a Democrat-led council committee voted last week to table the idea. The move angered parents and advocates who waited three hours to speak in favor of preschool but were not given a chance to speak.

Barth said even if the city doesn’t have its own program, there will be an expansion of preschool next year because of a new statewide pilot program in 2015 that was pushed through the legislature earlier this year by Gov. Mike Pence.

But the state program will serve far fewer kids than Ballard’s program, which aims to enroll 1,300 new four year olds in preschool.

“It’s important to remember that the council has already funded a preschool program for 2015 in partnership with the Indiana General Assembly,” Barth said. “Because of that, we have the time to thoughtfully look at the budget and look ahead to subsequent funding periods.”

Despite Ballard’s frustration, Kloth said the mayor’s office wouldn’t stop talking with council leaders about the issue.

“We remain ever optimistic,” Kloth said, “and will sit down with Democratic leadership anytime, anyplace to get this done now.”