Belt tightening in the Worthington schools may keep the district off the ballot in 2011, according to the district treasurer.

Belt tightening in the Worthington schools may keep the district off the ballot in 2011.

A $15-million, 2014 deficit projected last May has been replaced by a $758,000 surplus, according to the October five-year forecast presented at the Worthington Board of Education meeting on Monday.

"We should be able to stay off the ballot until some time in 2012," district treasurer Jeff McCuen said.

The district is in better shape because of savings from the middle school changes that went into effect this fall, the elimination of high school teaching positions made to reflect declining enrollment, and other efficiencies in spending, the treasurer said.

In 2010 alone, spending was approximately $3-million less than anticipated last May, McCuen said.

The forecast, which is done each May and October, is a fluid projection which more than likely will change over time.

The treasurer projected a $1.4-million loss in annual revenues from the state, but the district may be harder hit if the next state biennium budget removes the approximately $2.6-million a year he included from state personal property tax.

Many expect the governor to cancel the "hold harmless" clause that prevents districts like Worthington from being hit too hard by the removal of tangible taxes.

On the expense side of the forecast, the treasurer assumed a 0 percent, 0.5 percent, and 1 percent increases in base teacher salaries in 2013, 2014, and 2015. The actual increases will be decided through negotiations for the next teacher contract.

That went too far for board member Charlie Wilson, who voted against the forecast because it is "too aggressive."

The relatively small salary increases bear no resemblance to raises for teachers in past labor agreements, he said.

"I'm concerned this has become a political document," Wilson said.

Board president Julie Keegan said that base salary is the only way the district can get a handle on costs, since personnel costs make up approximately 87 percent of district spending.

Board member David Bressman said he was "saddened and shocked" that Wilson voted against accepting the five-year forecast, which represented the best thinking of many people, including McCuen.

"I think it dishonors the hard work he put into it," Bressman said.

The spending plan does include the same salary increases required by step increases, as well as double-digit increases in the amount the district will pay for health insurance for employees.

In fact, the 10-percent increase projected for 2013 through 2015 will be achievable only with better than expected claims, negotiating plan design changes, and/or negotiating a change shifting a larger portion of the burden to employees, said McCuen.

The step increases and the health insurance increases are the cost drivers behind the forecast, which has spending increasing between 3 percent and 4 percent a year, when inflation is said to increase at 2 percent per year, said board member Marc Schare.

As was suggested in a state audit of district spending, the spiraling cost of health care must be addressed, Schare said.

"As much as we would want Worthington to believe that our levy campaigns are about sports, AP programs, and student opportunities, the reality is that status-quo increases in health care costs will be a significant driver, perhaps the significant driver of our next request," he said.