"It's going to be the best school year yet."

"It's going to be the best school year yet."

With those words, Superintendent Melissa Conrath welcomed back Worthington teachers and staff at the annual convocation held Tuesday morning in the auditorium at Thomas Worthington High School.

The official first day of the 2008-09 school year was Wednesday.

As in past years, the convocation was part pep rally, with the Thomas Worthington marching band revving up the crowd, and part words of wisdom and encouragement from district leaders.

Conrath recalled talking to a parent of three last week. One attends Worthington schools; the others were educated at two prestigious private schools in central Ohio.

"Those schools have nothing on Worthington," he told Conrath.

She told the teachers that it is because of them that the district has once again been rated "excellent" by the state, and vowed that the district would not rest on its laurels.

The district faces challenges on many fronts, she said, citing the changing population of the district and the tough financial times faced by everyone.

The district will probably go to the voters to request a tax increase in May 2009, she said.

"We will not be able to pass this levy without your support," Conrath said.

Though it was not addressed during the program, the teachers also began the school year without a contract. Negotiations between the Worthington Education Association and the school board are ongoing.

Teachers on Tuesday morning wore "I am the WEA" badges and greeted a short talk by WEA president Pete Scully with a standing ovation.

Nick Baird, a physician and former director of the Ohio Department of Health, spoke briefly about the importance of the employee wellness program that will begin this year with a health risk assessment for all employees.

Two trillion dollars a year is spent on health care each year in the United States, yet the country lags far behind others in the quality and success of its health care, he said.

Ninety-seven percent of health care dollars is spent on disease, 3 percent on wellness, he said.

And 70 percent of deaths in this country are due to preventable disease, Baird said.

Conrath endorsed his encouragement of employees to get involved in the proactive health care program.

"You can't help others unless you first take care of yourself," she said.

As in past years, the winner of the annual Gary Smith Compassionate Teacher Award was named during the convocation.

Colonial Hills teacher Margaret Wilcox and Linworth director Wayne Harvey each won the award this year.

The award was established in 2002 to honor the memory of Gary Smith, who served as a teacher and coach in the Worthington schools. It recognizes teachers who have demonstrated outstanding compassion toward young people.

Nicole Gnezda, Smith's widow, announced the award winners on Tuesday.

"Go out this year, love your students, and take care of each other," she said.