Anne Arundel County school officials are seeking to raise salaries for entry-level teachers, in an effort to stay competitive with neighboring districts as the pool of licensed classroom instructors dwindles.

Chief system officials would not say how much of an increase they are seeking, citing the confidentiality of ongoing negotiations with the county teachers union.

But the system's teacher recruiting specialist suggested it would take a "couple thousand" dollar increase to bring Arundel up to par with most other Maryland districts. County public school teachers with a bachelor's degree now make $27,083 in their first year, compared with $31,669 in Montgomery County and $30,557 in Prince George's.

"We're not saying we have to pay top dollar," said Oscar Davis, the recruiting specialist, "but we do need to pay competitive salaries."

Teachers union officials applauded the move but noted that the school system may have a hard time getting a significant salary increase past the County Council, whose spending is constrained by a tax cap that limits budget growth to the rate of inflation.

Anne Arundel, like school systems throughout the region, has been finding it more difficult in recent years to hire enough qualified teachers, especially for math and science, and the problem is expected to worsen.

Many of the system's teachers are baby boomers in their 50s, who are heading for early retirement and eventually will leave hundreds of vacancies at a time when schools almost everywhere are trying to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes and accommodate growing student populations.

But the number of new graduates from teachers colleges has remained stagnant in recent years. And many qualified candidates have been lured away from the classroom by higher-paying jobs in the booming economy.

Anne Arundel, which had about 400 vacancies last year, had to fill nearly 600 this year, and expects to have to recruit nearly 700 new teachers next year. School officials expect the trend to continue until 2002.

Over the past year, state and local education officials have pondered a variety of tactics to recruit and retain more teachers, such as scholarships, signing bonuses and mentor programs. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) is exploring the possibility of low-interest mortgages for teachers who buy homes near their schools; state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick is seeking funds to recruit more mid-career professionals with no formal education background into the classroom.

But as Davis told county school officials last week, the most important incentive is pay. Throughout Maryland, entry-level salaries range from about $27,000 to about $32,000, he said, and Anne Arundel is currently at the lower end of the spectrum.

Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County President Susie Jablinske noted that in 1994, Anne Arundel offered the 11th-highest starting salary of 24 Maryland school districts. Today, Arundel stands at 18th, despite this year's 3 percent across-the-board salary increase.

"Salaries are not everything, but salaries do matter," Davis said. "If you're a young person just trying to get started, all things being equal, if you have to choose between two school districts, you have to consider the one that pays more money."

Chief financial officer Gregory V. Nourse said that any increase in starting salaries must be negotiated with the teachers union.

"We can't just arbitrarily raise the beginning salaries," Nourse said, noting that both sides then have to reconsider the entire salary scale, including the pay rate for more experienced teachers.

Jablinske said the union is also very interested in raising entry-level salaries.

But she said that the county should also raise salaries for experienced teachers. "These applicants are asking not only about starting salaries but also what they will be making eight years or 20 years from now," she said.

Any salary increase would have to be approved by the school system and the union, then submitted in Superintendent Carol S. Parham's budget request to the county next spring.

County officials said it is too soon to guess what role salary increases will play in next year's budget.

A spokesman for County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) said she is very concerned about entry-level salaries for teachers and how the county's rate has fallen behind the rest of the state.

Davis said the county school system is considering other measures to find and keep good teachers, including a mentoring program.

Though most schools have one experienced teacher assigned to help out newcomers, Davis said the system would like to have full-time mentors for new teachers. "As we go out and recruit, one of the questions we get is what kind of support programs we offer," he said.

Also, the school system is considering financial assistance to help cover the moving expenses of new teachers, as well as interest-free loan programs to help newcomers get established in a home or to buy computers.