Fauquier County schools Superintendent J. David Martin has proposed a $92.4 million budget for 2003-04 that would include funds to hire 22 new teachers and give all instructors a $500 raise to make their salaries more competitive with those in neighboring school districts.

The School Board is to hold a public hearing on the budget tonight at 7 at Taylor Middle School and is to vote on it Feb. 13 before sending it to the Board of Supervisors. Martin is asking supervisors for $61.4 million, about $2.5 million more than the county's share last year, with the rest coming from state and federal funds.

Martin's request represents a 6.4 percent increase over last year's $86.8 budget for the growing school system of 10,000 students and 17 schools. Supervisors adopted last year's county budget in a heated 3 to 2 vote, granting the schools a record $86.83 million appropriation -- just $600,000 short of the School Board's request -- to revamp the teacher salary scale and increase compensation.

Martin's budget proposal calls for $2.5 million in raises, including $2.3 million for teachers and about $222,000 for administrators. He said a $500 raise in teacher salaries would help to make Fauquier more competitive with surrounding districts. Under his proposal, a teacher's starting salary would be $31,000, about $3,400 below that in Loudoun County.

Resignations by teachers have increased rapidly over the past five years, from 59 in 1998 to 105 last year, and many have gone to Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties for higher pay, said Chuck Schonder of the Fauquier Education Association, which represents most of the school system's 800 teachers.

"Our biggest competition is Loudoun, especially because their salaries are so much higher and all the new schools they're opening up," Schonder said. "Martin only wants to increase the starting salary by $500, but the average increase in our comparison group of nine counties is $1,250. We're falling behind."

But school officials must recognize that "we're not going to match" competing districts' salaries, said Supervisor Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott), a retired math teacher at Marshall Middle School.

"It's like a food chain," he said. "We're going to take people from Rappahannock and Louisa counties, and they're going to take people from the southwest part of the state. The important thing is that you have to stay competitive so you don't get gutted."

One of the budget's most important components, Martin said, is the hiring of 22 teachers in such subjects as agriculture and English as a Second Language and for a new class in American Sign Language.

Some supervisors have said they would be hesitant to fully fund such a request in light of increased taxes incurred during last year's assessments and the state budget shortfall.

"This is not a year in which we can see increased spending for many of the programs," said Supervisor Joe Winkelmann (R-Center). "But there will be an overall increase from last year's budget. We're just not sure by how much."

Winkelmann sparred relentlessly with Martin last year over the school budget, saying it would be another blow to taxpayers facing increases in property reassessments, which are conducted every four years. "There won't be any leg wrestling this year," he said. "At least, I don't anticipate any."

Fauquier Superintendent J. David Martin is proposing a starting salary of $31,000 for new teachers.