Fauquier County Administrator G. Robert Lee has proposed a $163 million operating budget for 2004 that gives the school system all the money it has requested without raising the tax rate.

The budget, if approved by the Board of Supervisors later this month, would keep the tax rate at 99 cents per $100 of assessed value, with 92 cents for the general fund and seven for fire and rescue services. The school system would receive all $92.3 million it has requested, a $5.5 million increase over its current budget.

Lee said he did not want to raise the tax rate because last year's property assessments, conducted just once every four years in Fauquier, raised the average property tax bill by more than $300.

The board supports Lee's budget, said Chairman Harry Atherton (I-Marshall), partly because of last year's tax blow but also because "nobody wants to raise the tax rate in an election year."

With so much money slated for the schools, Lee said, next year's budget proposal does not include provisions for hiring more county government employees such as deputies or social services employees. The budget also postpones construction of a wastewater treatment facility in southern Fauquier, where residents in Catlett, Calverton and Midland have no sewers and some operate on drain fields that flood.

About half of Fauquier's budget usually goes toward schools. Lee has proposed raising that amount next year to 60 percent to cushion schools from state budget shortfalls.

However, the school system's share of the budget would then be capped at 60 percent.

The School Board wants to hire 24 new full-time teachers and give all teachers a $500 raise to make the growing school system of 10,000 students and 17 schools more competitive with Loudoun and Fairfax counties, which annually lure away a handful of Fauquier teachers with higher salaries.

"I may have stretched too far," Lee said. "I do regret that some of our needs go unmet in the general county government. The schools have all these new positions, and we have zero. But the schools are really important."

Supervisors support capping the school system's share of the budget at 60 percent because that forces school officials to "work within their share of the pie" before they pitch their request to supervisors, Atherton said.

"The problem we have now is that there's a natural adversarial relationship built in where they always want more and we're always trying to give them less," he said. "This puts the onus on them and takes a great deal of pressure off supervisors to make up for their past budgetary mistakes or ups and downs in the expense cycle."

But setting a capped percentage of the county budget on the school system in rural counties like Fauquier can be problematic, Atherton said, when large capital projects such as a new high school or new jail are needed.

"In Loudoun, bringing on another high school is a tiny percentage blip," he said. "In Fauquier, if we suddenly have to go from two to three high schools, it's a huge jump, one that might be unmanageable without a huge tax increase."

The supervisors plan a public hearing at The Barn at Lord Fairfax Community College on March 17. They are to vote on the budget March 31.