The Stafford County School Board approved a $4.1 million plan recently to provide new offices at the old Stafford Middle School for the system's administrative staff.

Tuesday's move was met with criticism from some board members who said the allocation was foolish given the current restraints on the school system's budget.

"I think in having to prioritize, it would be nice to have a new facility for the central office," said School Board member Barbara A. Cole (Griffis-Widewater). "But I think that that really has to be a lower priority than attracting and retaining quality employees so we can provide the best possible education."

Others disagreed, saying that the Rowser Building, home of the current offices, is too dilapidated and that the money would be better spent on a new facility.

"There are a lot of maintenance items that need to be done," said member Theron M. Peacock (At Large), who voted for the measure. "We can spend the money to maintain the old buildings or spend money on a new one."

Peacock said that the current facilities need roofing repairs, new carpeting and, in some cases, exterior facade work. "It's more embarrassing than anything else," he said.

The Stafford County Board of Supervisors froze school funding for next year at 1999's level of $59.1 million. That figure was augmented by a one-time $2.4 million allocation from the state lottery funds. Still, the $61.5 million total is less than the board requested and barely enough to cover the costs of nearly 1,000 additional students and the new Colonial Forge High School, members say.

The budget constraints reduced teacher raises from 5.5 percent to 4.5 percent. Cole said the money spent on the new offices, which would equal about a half-percent pay increase, should go to teachers.

Directing money to educators also is imperative at a time when good teachers are hard to come by, Cole said.

"We are experiencing a very real labor shortage, and we are not the only county to experience that," she said. "All communities experiencing growth need to be able to attract more employees. And because the market is becoming so competitive, all systems have to look at ways to attract quality employees. Teachers can drive 15 minutes up the road and make more money."

Nevertheless, the School Board approved the move 4 to 2, saying the administrative offices had reached a level of disrepair requiring a change. There also are too many offices for the Rowser Building on Route 1 to handle, and several employees work from an on-site trailer.

The repairs on the old middle school, which has been renamed the Alvin Bandy Administrative Complex after the popular supervisor, will be the second phase of renovations to the building. Last year, the School Board spent about $1 million to replace the roofs and stabilize the old middle school in preparation for the move.

Work was temporarily put on hold while the county shifted funds toward building new schools. Officials said they expect the renovation to be completed in late fall 2000 or early winter 2001.