When King County voters said yes to the Best Starts for Kids ballot measure in 2015, they set in motion a $400 million taxpayer-funded experiment.
County officials didn’t initially know how they would spend the money. They wanted to improve the lives of kids from cradle to college in ways that had never been measured, but promised to rigorously evaluate newly funded programs and share “achievements and failures.”
Instead, they’ve only shared the achievements. Over nearly six years, the county’s voluminous reports resemble a highlight reel, brimming with uplifting stories and impressive factoids: Nearly $370 million invested so far. More than 550 programs funded. A half-million people served.
There’s no question that Best Starts has helped a lot of people. But despite the millions the county spent on measuring BSK’s effectiveness, there’s no public evidence that Best Starts programs have achieved their own goals.
Instead, the levy’s success is defined by county officials, who are asking voters in the Aug. 3 primary to renew and more than double it to $872 million. Anything that doesn’t look like success is missing from BSK’s public profile, an examination by The Seattle Times has found.
That messier, private side of BSK, detailed in county audits and complaints obtained by The Times, includes allegations of misusing funds and overstating how many people were served.
In one case, police opened a criminal investigation. In another, the county couldn’t determine if public funds were misused. Two county agencies each found nearly 30 BSK-funded organizations that failed to meet at least one contract requirement — some had multiple and repeated failures — and in a few cases terminated their funding.
The county has required BSK contractors to return just .004% of funds for inappropriate spending. Rather than penalize failures, county officials have mostly provided expert help.
Even the half-a-million people that BSK claims to have served is not as straightforward as it seems. It was calculated with aggregated and anonymized data, making it impossible to know if the same people were counted multiple times.
In an interview, King County Executive Dow Constantine, BSK’s most prominent champion, called the more accommodating approach to accountability “noble” and reasonable, citing a handful of contracts terminated out of more than 500.
“So rather than simply saying, ‘Here’s the funding, sink or swim,’” he said, “we say, ‘You have the right mission, here’s the funding, and we’re going to come in and help you be able to build your organization.’”
Supporters of the BSK levy say it has provided crucial help to families amid the economic ruin of the pandemic.
It funds more than 30 organizations offering after-school and summer programming, a weekly television show catered to kids of color, and health centers that address youths’ mental and physical needs. One program to prevent youth and family homelessness says it has served more than 10,000 people and 90% have remained housed.
The county — after seeking bids — directed much of BSK’s money to small nonprofit organizations that have credibility in their communities, but little experience managing programs at scale or complying with government contracts.
At least 130 of the more than 400 BSK-funded organizations predominantly serve communities of color, which officials said was an approach to remedy the historical lack of investment in such organizations. Nonprofit leaders of color report smaller budgets on average compared to their white counterparts, a national survey shows, leaving them with smaller staffs and less capacity.
It’s not uncommon to see some organizations fail to meet contract requirements in the private philanthropy world, especially when funding those with fewer resources, said David Bley, interim chief executive of the Seattle Foundation (which has endorsed the original ballot measure and renewing it, and has helped administer BSK programs).
“There are no villains here,” he said. “It is a success story, but that doesn’t mean it can’t improve.”
In a series of responses to The Times, county officials described BSK’s work as complex and often so new that there is little to measure it against.
“Setting benchmarks and holding providers ‘accountable’ on client outcomes or other performance measures is not BSK’s approach,” officials wrote, adding that they don’t want to penalize organizations where “success is not guaranteed.”
Chase Gallagher, a county spokesman, said BSK “was built to upend the status quo” and invest in those who have long been left behind. The county, he added, will work to make more data public that links funding to program goals, “so that everyone can have insight into the amazing work of Best Starts for Kids.”
A measure of ambition
The spark for BSK came from Constantine’s visit to the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, he has said, and he pitched the tax measure as deploying “cutting-edge research” to “turn science into action.”
The county set out to do more for its youth than any other local government in the nation, he said, to help them succeed in all stages of life — decreasing infant mortality, curbing child abuse, improving school readiness and graduation rates and even increasing life expectancy.
“The proof of all this really is going to come when children being born now arrive at a successful and healthy adulthood,” Constantine said.
To deliver on this expansive vision, the county has poured more than $218 million — not including administration and other costs — into programs spanning prenatal care and services for youth as old as 24. BSK funds pay for activities as diverse as conducting home visits to low-income families with young kids and holding learning circles to train communities on resisting gentrification.
If the levy is approved in August, BSK would expand to $872 million. That amount — which would cost about $114 a year for the median-priced home countywide, or $45 more than this year — would pay for child care subsidies to an estimated 3,000 low-income families and a pilot program increasing wages for child care workers.
But the public data doesn’t show whether a program met its goals, which are set in individual contracts and only available through public-records requests.
Take T3AMS, a diversion program for shoplifting at Westfield Southcenter mall, which has received $2 million in BSK funding.
When asked why such targets are not public, county officials said that “publicly comparing their performance to their aspirational goal would erroneously imply that there is sufficient information to determine an expected level of performance.”
An in-depth evaluation of T3AMS found it “likely contributed” to a 91% decrease in arrests of youth of color by police. Based on the cost of court processing and supervision, it concluded T3AMS would need to cost less than $10,000 per person to be cost-effective.
Based on youths enrolled in the program, T3AMS has likely cost above $20,000 per person, The Times found.
That financial analysis doesn’t account for the harm to young people when they go through the criminal legal system, or the broader benefit of program mentors, said Sheila Capestany, director of the BSK levy.
“Our qualitative data is telling us — from the security themselves at the mall — that they believe the presence of that organization there and of the trusted adults walking around the mall has actually decreased disruptive behavior.”
In some cases, the lack of public data understates BSK’s contributions. ParentChild+ has received one of the largest investments of any individual program at $16.4 million since 2018. The service is provided by multiple contractors, matching low-income households with coaches of similar cultural backgrounds to help prepare young kids for school.
County data show it served 1,291 families in the year ending last August, or 19 more than it had two years before. But higher wages for staff, and lower caseloads for family coaches, have increased costs for the program by 50% in the last five years.
BSK funds, along with money from the city of Seattle, enabled a modest expansion despite the rising cost, said Karen Howell-Clark, a senior director at the United Way of King County, which coordinates and helps fund the program. “Without BSK, this program would not be operating at nearly the level of service and quality it is,” she said.
In an analysis of BSK’s record submitted to the King County Council last October, a single sentence commits to “share failures alongside successes.”
The report spends four of its 190 pages discussing “challenges.” The closest thing to a failure is an acknowledgment that BSK terminated some contracts, without elaborating. According to records obtained by The Times, this referred to a small number of contracts such as the one with the Center for Ethical Leadership.
A small but long-established nonprofit, the center won a $900,000 contract in 2018 for teaching restorative healing at two south Seattle schools. After eight months, the center had only hired one new employee despite a budget for more. A BSK program manager told Alice Fong, the center’s executive director, to hire staff or “she was out of compliance with no real programming to offer.”
The nonprofit had just hired four employees when, in August 2019, two of them abruptly resigned in frustration over Fong’s leadership. “She wasn’t putting that money in the community,” said Gariane Ladd, one of the staffers who resigned.
The organization reported serving 500 kids over three months, but a county review found no supporting evidence. “Numbers served seem to be inflated,” a program manager noted, records show.
Almost two years into the contract, King County officials held a meeting with the center’s staff in December 2019 and announced they were terminating the contract.
“We’re just, like, blown away,” Fong said in an interview.
Fong acknowledged delays in hiring staff and establishing relationships with schools, and that the center hadn’t collected information required by its contract. Still, she believes the center had a positive impact and disputed the numbers were inflated.
King County ultimately paid the nonprofit $275,000. In tallying the total number of people served by Best Starts for Kids, officials didn’t count any people the center reported, according to records reviewed by The Times.
Another contract that soured was held by one of the county’s biggest partners, the very source of the spark that became BSK: the University of Washington.
In early 2018, UW secured $600,000 to start a local program to vaccinate more youth for human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted virus that in some cases leads to genital warts or cancer. Modeled on a national program, the goal was to identify areas in the county with low immunization rates and come up with best practices to promote vaccines.
But the early months turned contentious. County public health officials complained that UW hadn’t submitted a definitive plan a year after winning the bid, according to county records. Much of UW’s materials “have been lifted directly” from a program in Vermont — albeit with permission and slight edits, the county concluded.
“It is our opinion that such minor adaptations did not require 9 months of development activity,” county officials wrote. By this point, BSK had paid UW $100,000. In the fall of 2018, UW and the county agreed to terminate the contract.
Janet Baseman, UW’s principal researcher on the contract, said her team believed the materials were “satisfactory and aligned with the goals of the proposal,” but supported the termination.
The county provided records of 10 organizations whose BSK contracts were terminated for reasons that were not always clear.
But that doesn’t reflect the full scope of contractors’ stumbles.
When partners stumble
As a small operation with credibility in South King County’s Somali community, Living Well Kent Collaborative was just the sort of group that BSK aimed to enlist.
Within a year of becoming a nonprofit in 2016, Living Well Kent signed its first BSK contract, to advocate for access to healthy food. In a few months it landed another BSK contract, and then another. In 2019, the fledgling nonprofit brought in more than $1 million in revenue, according to tax records — a tenfold increase in just two years.
But in the fall of 2019, a tipster contacted the county and alleged the nonprofit was misusing BSK funds. Within weeks, a county audit found ample reason for concern, records show.
Timesheets for employees were missing. The nonprofit relied on the memory of staff to keep track of work it performed under BSK contracts. It had loaned more than $4,500 to another nonprofit — run by its board president and where its executive director reported working as a consultant — without any written terms, violating state requirements, county staffers found.
But the nonprofit’s records were in such disarray that the auditors couldn’t determine if it had misused county funds. Instead of a penalty, BSK connected Living Well Kent with a county-paid consultant to help it make fixes.
Shamso Issak, Living Well Kent’s executive director, declined to comment and didn’t respond to written questions from The Times. In a January 2020 letter outlining a corrective action plan, the nonprofit traced its lapses in part to “rapid expansion of program without adequate systems in place.”
Almost a year after the initial audit, a King County program manager checked up on the nonprofit’s progress for its $800,000 contract to train child care providers. While Living Well Kent was “extremely responsive to community needs,” the county found, “vital information was missing from the client records sampled” and it had “billed for unallowable expenses.”
The child care health consultations contract wasn’t renewed. But in the next five months, King County renewed a different Living Well Kent contract, extended a second and awarded it three additional contracts worth $626,000. Through May, the nonprofit had received more than $2 million in BSK funds, among the levy’s top 30 recipients, according to county data.
County officials told The Times they awarded the additional work with the understanding that Living Well Kent would make the required fixes and “had the capacity to implement the new work.”
BSK funds also transformed the Federal Way Youth Action Team, a newly formed nonprofit that had begun as a strictly volunteer effort mentoring youth. The group received a $473,708 contract for BSK’s Stopping the School-to-Prison Pipeline program in 2019. That enabled to it hire a paid staff, and with it came turmoil.
On the evening of March 20, 2020, county officials learned of the trouble via two emails, sent 43 minutes apart.
The first, from board Chairman Bobby Jennings, informed them that Executive Director Usman Mian had been fired. The second, from Mian, claimed he was wrongfully terminated and accused Jennings of “fraudulent activities.”
The county mandated a corrective action plan. It clawed back nearly $8,000 in expenses — for a meal at Seattle’s Carlile Room that included alcohol, and for tax payments that had already been reimbursed.
It was the only time King County has required a contractor to return BSK funds for inappropriate use. But the county’s investigation into the allegations of fraud and suspect transactions went no further.
Officials told The Times they had no authority to probe more deeply because the allegations were “related to funds outside of our contract,” without specifying the source of the money.
Jennings resigned soon after the audit. “Although there were many hiccups and mistakes,” he wrote in a letter to the board, “I can confidently say that the FWYAT today is a turnkey business.” He didn’t respond to requests for comment or written questions.
“King County did not address a single one of the fraudulent activities that I brought to their attention,” Mian said. He filed a report with the Federal Way Police Department last year. The investigation remains active, said police Commander Tracy Grossnickle.
Cynthia Ricks-Maccotan, a founding board member who left the board in 2018 for health reasons, returned when she learned of the turmoil last summer. She said that the organization’s work is on track, enrolling a steadily increasing number of youth in its programs.
Many grassroots groups are good at helping kids but not adept managing the compliance obligations of a big contract, she said, adding that the county was right to award funds first and offer help later.
“If they had started out saying, ‘What capacity needs do you have?’ It would have been top-down like it had been before for a very long time,” she said “BSK is now a partnership.”
In January, the Federal Way Youth Action Team signed a new BSK contract to continue its work with at-risk youth. The standard language has changed since its first contract. Failure to meet any agreed-upon goals, it states, won’t violate the terms.
Clarification: This article was updated on July 15 to reflect that United Way of King County also funds the ParentChild+ program.