The low point came last Thursday, the morning before the Arlington School Board and teachers' representatives were to meet in the first public forum since the teachers had issued a vote of no confidence in the board and superintendent a week earlier.
"I just can't believe this!" yelled Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association, waving the school system's latest public relations bulletin -- a chart comparing Fairfax and Arlington teacher salaries -- as she walked down the hall of the administration building.
School spokeswoman Margaret Heckard, whose office published the list, had just stepped out of the office of Patrick J. Murphy, who had compiled information for the chart. Heckard apologized to McCreery. The chart was misleading, and McCreery's previous statements about salary inequities were accurate.
Both women left the discussion worried that the misunderstanding would add fuel to the testy relationship that has developed recently between the board, the superintendent and teachers' representatives.
"What bothers me," McCreery said, "is that this kind of stuff really exacerbates it."
The tug of war between teachers and School Board over salaries is an annual event no one likes. It is a time when the School Board has to back up with dollars its praise of the district's teachers, who, board members say, are as good as any in the region.
When board members say region, they usually mean Fairfax. Fairfax teachers' salaries have become a part of the Arlington salary debate, as teachers and School Board members carefully monitor the Fairfax district and its complicated salary scale in examining salaries in Arlington.
That comparison creates part of the tension, as salaries for experienced teachers in Fairfax generally are greater than those being offered next year in Arlington, even without Fairfax's merit pay supplements.
Some Arlington school officials said the comparison is an unpersuasive tactic. In the past two years, only about 14 teachers have left Arlington for jobs in neighboring jurisdictions. Most of them cited moving closer to home as a reason for leaving, according to school officials. Also, Arlington is not having difficulty recruiting teachers. Recently the district received 1,378 applications for 75 positions.
Under the proposed 2 percent salary increase this year, salaries for starting teachers in Arlington would be slightly higher than their Fairfax counterparts. Arlington teachers with bachelor's degrees would earn $22,500, plus a likely 4 percent cost of living increase, while their Fairfax peers would earn $23,100.
But few of Arlington's teachers are beginners. The largest number -- 728 of 1,064 -- are teachers with bachelor's degrees and at least 15 years of teaching experience, or with master's degrees, according to the education association. Those teachers, considered seasoned employees who have made education their careers, would be paid as much as $3,000 less than their Fairfax counterparts, according to education association statistics, which the school system is distributing for comparative purposes.
Salary comparisons are not the only factors coloring this year's budget hearings. Several nonbudgetary sore points between teachers and Superintendent Arthur W. Gosling's administration have made this round more acrimonious than most.
During a Feb. 11 work session, teachers delivered a vote of no confidence to Gosling and the board. The move surprised and angered some board members, who said privately that the vote may be part of a salary bargaining tactic. Teachers' spokeswomen have denied this and have said that the board's reaction has proven their original point: that broader teacher concerns are not taken seriously.
The vote came in the form of a resolution that expressed teacher concern over being excluded from discussions on moving sixth graders into middle schools, renovating buildings , adding a seventh period for secondary students and handling needs of immigrant children.
The education association has waged its salary battle in another, creative way. When School Board members suggested that the wage demands of other county employees had to be considered when adjusting teachers' salaries, teachers shot back with a chart comparing their earnings with those of a wide range of Arlington workers.
According to the chart, a beginning police officer with two years of college makes $3,500 more than an entry-level teacher with the required bachelor of arts degree. A school crossing guard with three to five years of experience earns $1,500 more than a teacher with the same years of experience. And a park ranger with a bachelor's degree and two years' experience earns $4,375 a year more than a teacher with the same credentials.