Prince William County ranks among the best in Virginia in terms of job growth and has one of the highest median incomes in the country.

Why, then, can’t the county afford to pay teachers an adequate wage?

That was the question Prince William teachers and county staff asked School Board members again and again at a public hearing Monday on Superintendent Steven L. Walt’s proposed $932.3 million budget. The budget keeps staffing levels the same, but does not provide for staff pay increases next year.

Few parents spoke at the meeting where teachers expressed frustration for having to dip into their own pockets to provide basic resources for county students. They also said it is a struggle to live on a county wage that has remained stagnant in recent years.

School Board members will deliberate over the proposed budget before adopting a final version this spring. State and federal allocations could also go up or down before then, affecting the final dollar amount.

Bonnie Klakowicz, the president of the Prince William Education Association, said that teachers have received small pay bumps in the past couple of years — around 2 percent. But promised “step” increases — a pay scale that goes up the longer teachers are in county classrooms — have not been delivered in the past three years, leading to the frustration many expressed during the Monday hearing.

The county’s long-term budget also does not provide for those increases over the next three fiscal years as well.

“You may have just ended my teaching career,” said Gainesville Middle School teacher Karen Powers. Powers told School Board members that she makes less than $50,000 and has continually dipped into savings to make ends meet. “How is it that I work every day and have less income than when I started?”

The average teacher salary in Prince William was $59,367 in the last fiscal year, according to a Washington Area Boards of Education report. That’s less than the city of Manassas, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, but more than Manassas Park.

Some teachers even spoke of a “work to the rule” campaign to gain the attention of school leaders. The campaign would mean teachers come in together at the beginning of the school day and leave at the last bell, as stipulated in their contract. Because most teachers help students after class and are involved with other school activities and work demands that keep them in classrooms for far longer, their absence would be notable.

Little River Elementary School teachers gather outside their school just after 7 a.m. on Nov. 10, 2010. They are trying to draw attention to the many unacknowledged overtime hours that teachers put in on a regular basis. (Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post)

Ted Rosiak, a teacher at Potomac Middle School, questioned how a county that has been so successful can’t find the funds to pay teachers more. “It’s our job, a job we love,” Rosiak said. “But … we are also members of this community.”

He said if pay increases don’t come, “We’re leaving at 3 p.m.”

David Kinsella, an Osbourn Park High High School teacher and vice president of the Prince William Education Association, said a high cost of living and stagnant salaries over the last few years drove teachers to the emotional response Monday.

“We’ve gone for so many years without a real pay increase,” Kinsella said in an interview. The “step” increases are something county teachers expected. “You’re counting on it.”

School Board member Gil Trenum said after the meeting that the proposed budget is “a status quo budget.” No teachers or staff would be laid off under the proposal and state budget cuts, especially to the Virginia Retirement System, meant the county had to step up its share.

He said few major decisions — including teacher salary increases — could be made by county leaders until the General Assembly finalizes and passes its budget, determining exactly what localities will receive.