Welcome to budget season, Darien.

Darien Public Schools Superintendent Donald Fiftal presented his proposed 2010-2011 budget at Tuesday night's four-and-a-half-hour-long Board of Education meeting. And it came with a warning:

"Even in light of some of the things we're going to talk about tonight ... this is a fine school district. We have a lot going for us, and we can't walk out the door tonight getting all down in the dumps," Fiftal told the board and members of various budgetary committees around town, as well as parent volunteers and other residents in attendance.

The superintendent, who announced his impending retirement last week, said he dealt with the 2010-2011 preliminary budget differently than he has in previous years.

"Superintendents in Darien, normally, because we are a high-performing district, and we're proud of that, we believe in moving our work forward in the continual improvement of work for our children," he said. "[The BOE] would often turn to the superintendent to come forward with a budget that reflected where we need to be, not only to maintain the excellence we need to have, but to grow in our work ... .

"Last year, through the experience we had, which was somewhat different, where the level of budget reductions ... was far and away a very different scenario than this community ... have been faced with, and we had to dig into that budget to find ways to pare it back $2.3 million last year," he said.

"It was clear to me that this year, we weren't out of the woods economically," Fiftal told the board. "In some ways, this year we were deeper in the woods."

A lack of trickle-down funding from state and federal initiatives indicated that the town would have to fund even more of the budget from within the district than during previous years, Fiftal said.

In his proposed budget, Fiftal outlines $3.6 million -- or 4.97 percent -- in increases. But after factoring in $384,866 that the district will not receive from the state, which Fiftal referred to as a "revenue shortfall," the net effect is $3,997,271, which translates to a 5.82 percent increase over last year's budget.

The requests as originally set on his desk called for a 7.7 increase, which he said was really a 8.7 percent increase, due to the reduced revenue, a figure he said he thought "would be irresponsible on my part to bring forward."

So his proposed budget already contains $2 million in cuts from what was originally requested.

The money is removed from the budget in several ways: by renegotiating transportation contracts; limiting the amount of new hires; eliminating positions; and some creative finagling.

Personnel and benefit expenditures account for about 85 percent of the total budget, and play a significant role in budget increases, Fiftal wrote in his Superintendent's Message.

In the high school, Fiftal's budget proposes adding 1.25 certified staff members, which is 3.2 fewer than requested by DHS Principal Dan Haron, and cutting four non-certified employees; some of the staffing cuts could possibly take place through attrition rather than layoffs, Fiftal said.

Haron had requested an additional 4.45 full-time educators in his budget, as enrollment district-wide is expected to swell to 1,343 students. According to budget documents, the high school is expecting 19 more ninth graders than this year's class, four more 10th graders, 11 less 11th graders and 47 more 12th graders.

"The increase of 59 students is above and beyond the approximately 40 students the school took in this year without any budgetary support," Haron told the board. Haron, who began his tenure at DHS in the math department, offered a step-by-step guide to the formula he used to calculate this increase. His formula depicted the need for four new sections of English, five new social studies sections, another art section and three additional sections of math, foreign language and science.

At Middlesex Middle School, where Fiftal said he expects a 39-student drop in enrollment for the upcoming school year, he suggests cutting a half an academic team (2.5 certified instructors) as well as eliminating either another certified or non-certified position. He also proposes reducing elementary staff by three certified members.

The three teacher reductions will take place at Holmes Elementary School, according to budget documents.

"Next year 36 students who reside at Avalon are re-enrolling in the district," Fiftal said. Due to the current district map, each of those students are currently set to attend Holmes. But by moving the district line, Fiftal said he found a creative way to cut back on personnel without increasing class sizes to an undesired number.

"If we were to move those 36 students to Tokeneke ... they could be absorbed in those classes without a single increase in teachers, and yet in our elementary class-size policy, we can reduce Holmes School by three teachers," he said. "That's $186,000 in savings ... we also reduce or eliminate the classroom request for double portable classrooms, for a net savings of $350,000."

The proposed budget also cuts one of the district's six groundskeepers, the administration service staff member who handles summer school and continuing education and two non-certified employees in the central office. It adds a budget-control certified position and a total of 17.7 positions in the special education realm, which may require further examination. The total effect of personnel changes in his plan is an increase of $1.7 million or 3.3 percent.

Teacher and administrative salary increases were previously negotiated. Teacher salaries will increase by 4.2 percent and administrative salaries will increase by 3.8 percent, according to Fiftal's presentation.

Employee benefits are "unthinkable right now," he said. According to budget documents, health insurance costs are expected to grow about $1.7 million, or 23.7 percent, for the 2010-2011 year, reaching a cost of more than $9 million.

"How this can be justified, I'm not sure," Fiftal said. "At $1.7 million, it's a budget killer right now."

He told the board that his presentation is based on current information, and he would "love to get better information" on health insurance.

"That's our starting point. We're still Darien. We're a great school district, and there's still some great stuff in this budget," he said at the end of his presentation.

"This is a little bit of a `Come to Jesus' budget."