The Loudoun County School Board last week approved a budget of nearly $53 million that would set some starting teachers' salaries $370 higher than the figure recommended by School Superintendent Robert Butt.

To accomplish the increase in salaries without increasing the budget, the board voted to eliminate two assistant principal positions: one at Meadowland Elementary and the other at Seneca Ridge Middle School. The changes reduced the budget proposed two weeks ago by $26,696.

The board asked the school staff to study staffing needs in all county schools before they decide which positions to fill.

The board decided to raise salaries of teachers with a Virginia Education Certificate from the proposed $17,150 to $17,520 but did not increase the salaries of teachers with bachelor's degrees above the $17,520 recommended by Butt.

"The whole idea is to be competitive with surrounding counties to give us a better edge in the fight to hire good teachers," school spokeswoman Molly Converse said. The pay raises, slightly more than the 11 percent originally recommended, would go to teachers on all educational levels, bringing salaries for new teachers in Loudoun County up to 93 percent of salaries paid in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties.

The board approved a $2,000 salary increase for Butt, who has almost 20 years' service to Loudoun and is the longest-serving school superintendent in the state. His salary is now $65,000. Deputy Superintendent Robert Jarvis received a $1,200 boost, bringing his salary to nearly $54,000. The budget will go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.

Another incentive proposed by Butt to attract new teachers and retain current teachers -- day-care centers for teachers' children -- was killed in the state Senate Education Committee two weeks ago.

According to Butt, his request for legislation that would allow the county to establish a pilot program for such centers was killed because "it usually takes more than one trip to Richmond to get what you want."

A representative from a chain of day-care centers was the lone opposition during the bill's consideration.

"I guess they don't want the competition," Butt said.

Several supervisors have indicated they will include the concept in next year's legislative package.

The board heard a presentation on a four-month telephone survey conducted by Southeastern Institute of Research Inc., a Richmond firm, that showed that nearly 70 percent of Loudoun County's residents polled believe that merit pay "rewards good teachers and should be instituted," while nearly 63 percent of the teachers polled opposed merit pay. Male or female heads of households in 366 homes participated, while 536 of the county's 850 teachers responded.

Bonnie Epling, a School Board member who served on a committee that has studied the issue of merit pay for 18 months, said later that the three-member group "looked at every career incentive known to man" before hiring the research firm to conduct the survey.

Although the percentage of parents who support the concept and the percentage of teachers opposed to it is nearly 70 percent of those polled in both groups, the committee plans to have a recommendation for the board in April, Epling said.

Merit pay is given when teachers receive a high evaluation from a principal at the end of the year. Most teachers oppose it, Converse said, because evaluations are subjective and are not always considered fair by the teachers.