Summit School District committees voice frustration with budgeting process as leaders voice optimism

With projections showing a potential deficit as soon as the 2025-26 school year, two district committees are pushing for an overhaul of the budgeting process

The Summit School District Administration Building in Frisco is pictured Nov. 12, 2020. As deficit concerns continue to surround the budgeting process, board members are poised to vote on a 2023-24 spending plan on June 22.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily News archive

Two Summit School District committees, in letters and public statements, voiced concerns to the Board of Education around spending projections that could send the district into a deficit in the coming years.

As board members prepare to vote on a 2023-24 school year budget likely to exceed $50 million in expenditures, recent projections have shown such spending could put the district in a negative balance as soon as the 2025-26 school year. 

“This will result in much more challenging decisions if we do not take a stronger stance sooner,” wrote members of the District Accountability Committee in a letter to board members. “We encourage the board to consider this funding challenge as we review the budget now, and in the next year.”

At the heart of officials’ concerns is the continued depletion of the district’s fund balance, which essentially serves as its savings account. Per board policy, the district must retain at least 7% of its annual revenue for that account. Additionally, it must keep 3% in accordance with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a state law. 

In recent years, the district has been siphoning money from that account in order to meet expenses that began to balloon during the COVID-19 pandemic. While next school year’s spending plan keeps that balance above the stipulated threshold, district officials and board members have said they cannot continue to diminish it further. 

“Drawing down reserves should be done only in special situations, such as the recent COVID pandemic, and the committee members are reluctant to consider the current economic situation so compelling that the use of such a large amount of our remaining reserves is justifiable,” wrote members of the District Finance Committee in a recent letter

“If no changes are made, ending fund balance would be just over the board policy of a 7% minimum, and if spending continues at the same pace, would result in a fund balance below board policy by the end of next year,” the letter continues. “Such a shortfall could put the District in the position of forced budget reductions as early as next year.”

Finance committee member Stan Katz, speaking during a June 15 board meeting, said of the current proposed budget that “virtually no changes were made and that was very, very frustrating to the finance committee.”

“What we would like to have seen was the board create a true priority list with dollars attached to each one,” Katz said, adding the board should then have “serious discussions about possibly eliminating some of the lower priority items.”

Katz said that is a discussion that should happen “before you pass a final budget,” which board members are slated to vote on during their June 22 meeting. 

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Superintendent Tony Byrd said he understood the gravity of the district’s financial situation and restated his commitment to never present a budget that would dip below the board- or state-mandated reserve policy. 

To do so, Byrd has previously stated that future budget cuts or spending freezes are a possibility. He maintained he was prepared to look at all options in order to maintain a fiscally responsible long-term spending plan.

The 2023-24 budget, Byrd said, makes major investments in spending areas that will have direct benefits to students without pushing the district below its reserve thresholds. That includes pay increases for teachers, principals, support staff and bus drivers, the hiring and retention of which could be crucial to improving school absences, Byrd said. 

It also identified between $1.4 million and $1.5 million in savings that won’t affect “academic programs.” And it facilitates key learning properties, such as expediting an overhaul of math materials.  

Byrd defended the recent creation of administrative roles, adding, “I think that sometimes people will say that we’re bloating the central office, and that is not my experience. What we’re doing is reorganizing for more efficiency.”

For example, some roles have been removed or consolidated such as the elimination of a chief academic officer and elementary and secondary education directors. New roles include a chief transformation officer and equity officer. 

Those positions, Byrd said, are data-driven and are designed to examine the root causes of academic issues, attendance and general student performance. 

“Those two titles might not be as clear to people as they should be,” Byrd said. But they are both linked to academic improvement, he added. 

Board members also pledged to explore new budget proposals that will avoid a deficit in the coming years, voicing optimism that such a scenario could be avoided. Board member Lisa Webster said there are a number of factors to consider beyond what the district can do to make changes to its spending plans. 

That includes the potential for increased public education funding from state legislatures, who have pledged to pay off what is known as the budget stabilization factor, a Great Recession-era policy that has constricted state funding for public education for years. 

“What we project out is based off of assumptions made for the future. I was one of the people who was throwing around the term ‘deficit spend,’ and we aren’t there yet,” Webster said. “There is definitely a way out of that projection.” 

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