King County debates how to spend more than $300 million for education | KNKX

King County debates how to spend more than $300 million for education

Jun 18, 2019

King County leaders are beginning to narrow their options for how to spend more than $300 million for education over the next 15 years.

The money is coming from the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account (PSTAA), which was created in 2015 when the state Legislature gave Sound Transit the go-ahead to pursue its system expansion known as Sound Transit 3.

As part of the deal authorizing the transit agency's taxing authority, lawmakers required Sound Transit to pay fees on new construction. Those fees are set aside for education efforts in the counties in Sound Transit's taxing district.

King County is projected to receive about $318 million from PSTAA between now and 2034. Pierce and Snohomish counties are expecting more than $121 million and $78 million, respectively. The counties can spend the money on anything from child care to higher education.

In 2017, the King County Council outlined three buckets for the money: early learning, K-12 education for vulnerable youth, and post-secondary efforts. The council also said it would prioritize youth of color and kids connected to the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Since then, the county has been studying which strategies it might invest in and figuring out how much to spend in each bucket. 

Dozens of people testified Monday at a public hearing for County Council legislation that would guide those decisions. Based on the mix of commenters and the range of possible projects, it's clear the council and executive face tough decisions in the months to come.

"There is a significant shortfall of quality early learning in King County," Sarah Reyneveld, chair of the King County Women's Advisory Board, told council members.

Reyneveld and others asked the council to dedicate most of the funds to building and expanding child care and preschool facilities, citing low rates of enrollment compared to other states.

Other commenters urged the council to split the money evenly among age groups and focus on community-based organizations that already help underserved kids do better in school.

Former Seattle School Board Director Stephan Blanford said those groups help close racial opportunity gaps.

"There is great need for additional support in the K-12 space," Blanford said.

Several high schoolers and representatives from community and technical colleges pushed for more post-secondary support. They focused on scholarships for low-income students and increased advising capacity.

"Students need advising, mentoring and support services as they take their next steps in education," said 17-year-old Samantha Castro, a Running Start student at Green River College and Kentwood High School.

After the public hearing, council members shared thoughts on how they think the money should be spent. 

"We are not in-classroom teachers," Council member Rod Dembowski said. "But we are a good and strong provider of supportive services, wraparound services supporting folks to make sure they have the opportunity to succeed in school."

A few council members expressed interest in funding capital costs for early learning facilities. There also was interest in creating an endowment, which could help fund some of the other projects suggested by commenters.

Over the next few weeks, the council is expected to assign spending percentages to each age group. Once passed, the legislation will direct the executive to come up with a more detailed plan on how the county will spend the PSTAA funds. Council members also indicated the legislation should direct the executive to focus on specific strategies.

While the council and community members are excited about opportunities for this big influx of money, there are a few challenges ahead in managing the funds.

Even though the county is expecting a lot of money over a period of time, the PSTAA funds amount to a one-time payout rather than an ongoing revenue stream. That makes it hard to begin or expand programs for kids. 

The money also will be disbursed unevenly over that period of time, with more dollars expected in some years than in others. The county is not allowed to bond against the fund.

And because of the way the fund was set up, it's up to the Legislature to appropriate the money from PSTAA to the counties each year. That creates some uncertainty as the county decides how to spend those funds.