Enrollment, Staff Requests Drive Superintendent Budget
ROCKY HILL - The Board of Education has reduced a Superintendent proposed 6.1 percent budget increase to 5.9 percent-as of its last workshop-by betting lower on both magnet school tuition costs and health benefit expenses, two drivers of Dr. Zito’s original request.

       The reductions were proposed by Board member Jennifer Allison, who noted decreases in magnet tuition costs in recent years-a trend Zito said in his presentation has been cancelled out by rising expenses of special education outplacements.

       The proposed revision yields a $22,500 savings. Another $23,000 came off through another Allison proposal-budgeting 13 percent for employee health benefits, versus the 13.4 percent Zito came in with.

       The projected percentage increase-driven by a proposed 9.5 staff requests prompted by rising enrollment-would have landed at 10 percent without the tentative hires, Zito said.

       One position was a custodian, which Allison suggested deferring until the halfway point of the year, to the tune of $35,400 in savings.

       Zito unveiled the proposal-already the subject of workshops being held between his staff and members of the Board of Education-at the January 23 regular Board meeting.

       “I will say that this is the largest budget I’ve presented to you in the six years that I’ve been here,” Zito said. “And there is strong rationale for this budget.”

       For one thing, there’s the usual salaries and benefits factor-composing 82 percent of the proposed $42.9 million appropriation. That’s typical, in a state where municipal education budgets regularly see these areas take up between 80 and 85 percent of school expenditures, Zito noted.

       But what is unique to Rocky Hill is the rising enrollment-up 295 students in the past four years.

       “In most districts, that would be an elementary school. Maybe a high school, if you’re in Bolton. That’s enormous growth-about 3 percent per year,” Zito said.

       The trend-expected to continue with an additional 250 students over the next four-was the prompting behind a fourth and fifth grade intermediate school construction project slated to wrap up in 2019.

       “These projections are accurate, and they’re not going down,” he said.

       And with more students, comes an increase in those requiring special education services-an often volatile expense for districts that have to worry about outplacement tuition. Rocky Hill, which spends 18.5 percent of its school budget on special education, ranks second in its District Reference Group for efficiency in this category by managing to keep its students in-district, Zito said in a subsequent workshop.

       That doesn’t mean costs aren’t going up, though-not with an increase from 262 special education students to the current 317 inside of Zito’s six years as Superintendent.

       “The caseloads are growing significantly. We’re just a district that’s popular-a lot of people are moving into town, but we have to keep pace with the growth,” he said.

       That means enlisting 9.5 new staff members-a request that includes an assistant principal for Stevens Elementary School, a new PE teacher at West Hill, and an additional classroom teacher for each of the elementary schools-which have seen the bulk of the enrollment inflation.

       While baseline health benefit projections peg his request at 10.5 percent-below the state average of 12 percent-the additional staffers would bring the increase in this area to 13.5 percent, Zito said.

       “I know it’s a big request, but when you consider how our district has grown, I can easily justify them,” he said. “We need to keep pace.”