The Montgomery County Board of Education agreed last night to use almost $5 million previously slated for educational improvements in next year's operating budget for teacher raises.

The pay package will raise the salaries of new teachers, who were to have been paid $17,100, to $19,000 and give veteran teachers a 6 percent pay increase.

In raising the salaries of new teachers, Montgomery County is following other local school districts that have raised starting teacher pay to be more competive in hiring.

Montgomery is expected to hire between 500 and 700 new teachers next year. The pay raise means those hired will be the fifth highest paid among local jurisdictions, trailing Fairfax, Arlington and Howard counties and Alexandria.

About 200 teachers, wearing buttons that said "I'm involved for quality education" cheered and clapped as board members voted unanimously for the pay increase.

School board President James Cronin said he had no choice but to vote to raise teachers' salaries. "If we fund the improvements and we can't hire new teachers then the improvements are for naught," he said.

He said the County Council had "unfairly" presented the school board with a "Sophie's Choice" of having to chose between two equally important items. He said the board intends to ask the county for extra money to restore special education programs.

Initially, next year's $476 million budget included about $10 million for such improvements as reducing class size, hiring elementary school teachers, and adding kindergarten classes.

The improvements have been cut by about half because the County Council gave the school board only $2.5 million of $7.3 million requested to finance the teacher pay package. The council told the board to take the remaining money from funds allocated for improvements.

Late last night, the board went through the list of improvements line by line trying to decide what to cut.

Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the union that represents teachers, said that although teachers are happy with the raises, the cuts are "very unfortunate."

Vicki Rafel, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said her group also supports the teacher pay raises and asked the school board to seek from the council an additional $2.7 million to restore some of the improvements that have been cut from the budget.

The pay increase means the salary of a teacher at the top end of the scale would go from $39,463 to $40,654.