Thanks to a last-minute amendment a Seattle lawmaker tucked into the state’s transportation budget two years ago, the county councils in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties soon will have half a billion dollars to spend on education over the next 15 years.
King County is now starting to talk about how to spend its portion of the money — about $318 million — which must go toward improving academic outcomes for kids who are low-income, homeless or in other vulnerable groups.
Pierce and Snohomish counties are expected to follow suit soon.
The half billion comes on top of the increases in education funding that lawmakers approved in the new state budget, as required by the state Supreme Court under the McCleary school-funding case.
It’s also in addition to the $392 million that King County is raising in its Best Starts for Kids levy, approved 2015.
The idea, Metropolitan King County Council member Claudia Balducci said, is to complement existing district, city and statewide programs. One idea under discussion: Using the money to construct, maintain and renovate facilities for early-learning centers run by the city and state.
In its first decision about the money, the King County Council plans to vote Dec. 11 on whether its priorities will include early learning, K-12 education for vulnerable and under-served youth, and college and career training.
“We want to try to narrow our focus enough so that we make deeper investments in a few areas, as opposed to shallow investments all over the place,” Balducci said. “To do that, we need to decide — and this is going to be the challenging part — where do you make those deep investments?”
The funds are coming from an account created by an amendment sponsored by Jessyn Farrell, a Democrat who then represented the 46th Legislative District in Seattle.
At the time, Republican lawmakers wanted to eliminate sales taxes on road projects. Democrats were opposed, but wanted legislative approval for Sound Transit to raise $15 billion from Puget Sound area voters, mostly to expand light rail. That was a key step toward placing the Sound Transit 3 measure — which passed — on the November 2016 ballot.
They compromised on a 3.25 percent fee applied to Sound Transit construction contracts.
And that’s where Farrell came in, sponsoring an amendment aimed at keeping those fees — an estimated $518 million — in the three counties in the Sound Transit region. Otherwise, they would have gone back into the state general fund. She also proposed that they be earmarked for education.
“It didn’t make sense to have legislators making decisions about the money, but it didn’t make sense to send it to the Sound Transit board, either,” Farrell said. “The county councils seemed like the best body for this.”
The money will start flowing to the counties in 2019, leaving time for the councils to plan for how they want to spend it. King County expects to receive an estimated $363,000 in 2019 and $4.13 million in 2020.
The County Council could decide to spend the money on school district programs, but initial plans call for focusing on other services.
The council says it will hold at least two town hall meetings and work with a consultant to develop its plan. In its December vote, it will decide whether to finish its proposed plan by Sept. 1, 2018.
Farrell said she’s happy about the county’s direction so far.
“It’s rare we have this opportunity to put this much money into supports for vulnerable youth,” she said. “I really, really urge them to think of this money in a transformative way.”