Democrats who are wary of some parts of Mayor Greg Ballard’s blockbuster $50 million proposal to help more children attend preschool across Indianapolis will offer their own preschool expansion plan later this month.
While some of Ballard’s allies are charging that Democrats are playing politics and putting at risk opportunities for poor Indianapolis children, both supporters of his plan and some of those with reservations say they are optimistic that expanding preschool can still happen.
“My Democratic friends have been in favor of pre-K until Republicans say, ‘let’s do this,’” said City-County Council member Aaron Freeman. “Amazingly, it’s a fight. Everybody’s got to have an alternative plan. Frankly, I’m sorry, but the time for deal-making and the time for alternative plans is kind of gone.”
Even so, Democrats and Republicans have been holding talks in search of a compromise.
“We are 100 percent committed to getting preschool done for our children and for our city for 2015,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said.
From Ballard’s July announcement calling for preschool to be a central pillar in his plan to sustainably curb the city’s crime and education problem, there were signs that the political road ahead might not be smooth.
For instance, Council president Maggie Lewis and other prominent Democrats were noticeably absent from the announcement and soon after began raising concerns about Ballard’s preferred method of funding the program: eliminating the local homestead tax credit.
Ballard has argued that while cutting the homestead credit would cost some Indianapolis homeowners an average of $22 per year that they now save from their tax bills, it would be worth it to support 1,300 more spots for preschoolers and help local providers meet high-quality standards.
The homestead credit is a local subsidy that benefits some residential taxpayers whose bills are below the 1-percent cap on property taxes. It is not the same as the major homestead deduction, which benefits all residential taxpayers.
Democrats have countered that 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. But Ballard responded that the school districts would benefit significantly by enrolling more incoming students who were better prepared to start kindergarten because they had been to preschool first.
Council Vice President John Barth, a Democrat, said he plans to unveil an alternative to Ballard’s plan in time for the City-County Council’s next meeting on Sept. 22. Though Barth hasn’t finalized all the details of what his plan will entail, he’s sure that it won’t include using the elimination of the homestead tax credit as a funding source.
“The resistance to that funding mechanism is not new and is well known,” Barth said. “I am working on a proposal that gets specific and into the weeds on how a pre-K program would work in Indianapolis.”
Ballard’s staff and some Republican council members said they are open to considering alternative funding plans if it can assure the preschool plan happens.
“We appreciate and welcome any and all ideas that Councilman Barth would propose,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said. “The homestead tax is one sustainable source of funding preschool and putting more police officers on the street. However, we are open to any sustainable funding source and are eager to hear the Democratic counter-proposal for funding this.”
Kloth said he is in talks with Barth and others, including Lewis, to work through their differences with the mayor’s plan. Most of the negotiations are centered on how to fund the program, Barth said.
“To me, if we agree preschool is No. 1, then we need to re-balance the budget to demonstrate that,” Barth said. “That’s a painful process, but we’re working through that. I’m trying to navigate through the middle and get everyone on the same page.”
Republican Councilman Jeff Miller said he became a strong preschool proponent after he saw the learning gains his child made while attending a preschool program. He said he would be receptive to hearing an alternative to the mayor’s plan if it means more kids get to attend preschool.
Miller said there likely will be support for an alternative plan among Republicans on the council.
“For me, it’s never been about the funding having to come from here, here or here,” Miller said. “The funding has to come from a source that is viable. It felt like the homestead credit was a good way to go. But I’ll be the first to say that if there are other plans out there, I’m willing to listen to them.”
Others aren’t open to deal making.
Councilman Steve Tally, a Democrat, said he opposes the mayor’s proposal because of it will cost money that now goes to public schools, libraries and other services. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, stands to lose $734,000 if the homestead tax is eliminated.
“In addition to increasing the tax burden on our residents, it disproportionately impacts people who live in very modest homes and our seniors who have paid their mortgages off in some of the most challenging neighborhoods,” Tally said.
Some councilmembers just think it’s time to eliminate the homestead tax credit for good.
“If there was a way to (fund preschool) with some other funding mechanism, I’d certainly consider it, but my concern is that any proposal that’s floated is going to be for the purpose of avoiding eliminating the homestead credit,” said Republican Councilman Will Gooden. “I’m afraid if they’re treated separately at this point, the can is once again going to get kicked down the road.”
Time is running out for the council to decide if it wants to use the tax credit elimination. By law, Kloth said, there is a Sept. 22 deadline to vote on the tax credit.
Meanwhile, education leaders and preschool advocates are waiting to see if the city will make a big commitment to preschool.
Ted Maple, president of preschool provider Day Nursery Association and a long time advocate for expanded preschool, said he doesn’t care how the city’s preschool program is funded as long as it is high-quality.
“I’m hopeful we can come to an agreement as soon as possible,” Maple said. “We have too many children out there that need early childhood education. We as a community have waited too long to do the right thing for kids. If we put it off now, we’re at risk of putting it off again for a really long time.”