The Calvert County Board of Education has approved a 2.5 percent salary increase for beginning teachers. The raise, approved Thursday to take effect next year, is a more modest increase than one originally proposed by the superintendent.

Also at Thursday's meeting, board members moved closer to choosing a site for a new high school--the county's fourth--and continued discussions about whether to plan for a fifth high school.

Under the pay plan, first-time teachers with bachelor's degrees but no graduate study will receive $31,160 for the 2000-2001 school year, up from this year's starting salary of $30,400 but much less than the $33,000 that Superintendent James R. Hook had asked the Board of Education to consider last month.

Hook scaled down his own proposal for what would have been an 8.6 percent jump after it failed to win backing from those who argued that the money could be used to hire more teachers. The superintendent is also facing a potentially difficult budget-setting process with county commissioners who already have decided to try to limit funding increases for education, a situation that further complicated prospects for approval of a large salary increase.

Though Calvert has long been one of the highest-paying counties in the state, salaries flat-lined for three years in the second half of this decade. The county claimed the top spot during the 1994-1995 school year, with the starting pay for a beginning teacher holding a bachelor's degree at $29,867. The following year it dropped to sixth in the state when the salary decreased to $26,867.

The salary remained there for three years, and at one point during that time the county's ranking fell all the way to 13th.

That changed in the 1998-1999 school year, when the pay was increased to $28,000. It jumped $2,400 this year and will jump a more modest $760 next year.

Hook said the increase should keep Calvert at its current third-place ranking, though it remains to be seen what increases other counties offer. Teachers across the board will receive a similar percentage salary increase during the next school year under their contract with the school system.

"Not only is [the starting salary increase] consistent, but it still keeps us in third place," Hook said.

The salary increase, though more moderate than the original proposition, is a local reflection of efforts by school districts nationwide to attract top candidates. Throughout the country, school districts facing rising enrollments and teacher retirements already are competing with each other for new teachers to staff classrooms next fall. To fill faculty positions in the midst of a national teacher shortage, many school systems are offering as many incentives as they can to draw applicants.

The board also approved a $650 increase for provisional beginning teachers--those teachers who have bachelor's degrees but have not yet received their teacher certifications--to $26,650. Beginning teachers with master's degrees or other advanced degrees will get $853 more, making their salary to $34,953.

School board members voted unanimously to increase the salary but some cautioned that it was a temporary fix to a growing problem.

"This is only temporary," said William J. Phalen Sr. "We cannot continue to leave the salaries the same if we're going to compete. Getting teachers is difficult, and we're going to have to do something different."

Nationwide, "teachers' salaries are disgracefully low across the board" compared with salaries for other professions, board member Ruth T. Keimig said.

Also at last week's meeting, Hook told board members that he would recommend in January the purchase of land to become the site of a fourth county high school. That location would be somewhere north of Parkers Creek, based on recommendations from county and school district planners.

Board members renewed discussions on whether to plan for an eventual fifth high school. The fourth high school is included in the county's capital improvements program for fiscal 2001 to 2006, but school officials said the county commissioners should consider building a fifth.

County commissioners, meanwhile, generally have been cool to the fifth school idea, saying that steps they are taking to slow growth could quash the need for it.

Some board members remained skeptical and decided to postpone any decisions on a fifth high school until early next year. "There is no assurance that [slower growth] will happen," Phalen said. "Given that, I don't see how we cannot say that we will need a fifth high school."