Local governments can indirectly set Virginia teachers' salaries through control of the local school system's budget, Attorney General Marshall Coleman said last week in an opinion requested by Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington).

Almand requested the opinion last month at the request of the Arlington Education Association after the Arlington school board decided to give county teachers a 5 percent pay raise, rather than the 7 percent requested by the teachers. Board members said at the time that their decision was based on a fear that the county board would not appropriate $1.2 million in contingency funds to the schools if the teachers did not receive the same pay increase set by the county board for all other county employes.

Coleman's opinion said that state law prohibits local governing bodies from determining teacher's pay. But, he said, previous opinions have held that a major classification in a budget may be increased or decreased. That allows a local government to change the amount of money in the classification that includes teachers' salaries, hesaid.

"Admittedly, this gives the government body a mechanism by which to affect school policy," Coleman said, "but it is a mechanism allowable under law."

In May, the Arlington County Board approved a school budget of $46.5 million, $1.28 million less than the school board requested. At the same time, the county board established several contingency funds that would be available to the school system later in the year if the money is needed.

The school board then cut more than $70,000 from its requested budget by holding salary raises to 5 percent. School Superintendent Larry Cuban told the school board that failure to cut salary increases would mean "probable retaliation" from the county. Such retaliation would cause "drastic retrenchment" in school programs and employes, he said.

Marjorie Sale, director of the teachers' association, said late last week that the organization had not been officially informed of Coleman's decision. She said the group would have to see the opinion before deciding on any further action.

Sale said the group requested the opinion to try to " clarify " what powers the county board has over the school board.

"We were distressed that if this trend were to follow, a number of larger and larger contingencies would be coming," she said.