Physical education teacher Steve Lightman taught in Prince George's County teacher for 11 years before went to Montgomery County. Lightman teaches kickball to students at Greencastle Elementary School. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

After years of pay freezes and unpaid furloughs, physical education teacher Steven Lightman received a roughly $8,000 annual salary bump this school year.

But it wasn’t because Lightman’s school system decided to give the veteran teacher a raise. He made it happen himself by switching Washington area school districts.

Lightman, a Prince George’s County teacher for 11 years, started working in Montgomery County last fall. He is one of many teachers reaping the benefits of living in a region where a dramatic boost in pay can be just a county away.

“The salary did play a role,” said Lightman, now a teacher at Greencastle Elementary School. “To get a substantial raise makes it easier for my wife and I to start the family that we just did.”

Discrepancies in teacher pay across the region are large, and the recession has sharpened the divide, sending some teachers looking for better deals. Beginning teachers in the Washington area make between $42,800 and $51,500 — a difference of 20 percent — and average salaries range from $58,500 to $77,500, a 32 percent difference. Parents and school officials worry that if such disparities in teacher pay deepen, districts that are already struggling to stay competitive will fall further behind as their best teaching talent moves elsewhere.

Montgomery, which area school officials say excels at luring and retaining teachers, approved two wage increases of up to about 7 percent for most employees in fiscal 2013. Another bump is planned for 2014. Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said that maintaining top salaries is critical not only for keeping talent, but also for keeping talented teachers motivated.

“You never want salary to be an issue,” Starr said. “When it drops below a certain level, people won’t go above and beyond, because they’re not getting fully compensated.”

Some school systems are seeing those teachers who believe they’re not fully compensated flee, with turnover rates that are two, three or even four times those in Montgomery.

Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said he has seen Fairfax teachers leave for Montgomery, and he fears it will get worse if pay stays flat in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction.

“This year is much worse, as we have fallen way down,” Greenburg said, referring to pay in Fairfax in comparison with other districts. Early budget recommendations proposed a 2 percent increase in take-home pay for Fairfax teachers, similar to what neighboring Virginia school systems are planning. But the district now plans to cut those raises roughly in half after the Board of Supervisors recently limited tax increases, potentially creating a $30 million budget shortfall for the school system.

“Add in the teacher workload issues, and Fairfax is no longer the most attractive school system” to work for in the Northern Virginia area, Greenburg said.

The beginning and average teacher salary in Fairfax falls in the middle compared with others in the region, slightly ahead of Prince George’s. It has the second-lowest maximum teacher salary, behind only Prince George’s.

“Our school system is at stake,” said former Fairfax teacher Pat Hynes, who represents the Hunter Mill district on the Fairfax County School Board. Education “is a huge, important public investment in this community. We know companies come here and people settle here for our schools. If we don’t take care of that investment, we could lose that.”

Beth Tudan, parent of three Fairfax students, said if salaries don’t increase, experienced teachers who commute to Fairfax for work might seek jobs in neighboring Virginia school systems, where local governments have more flexibility to raise taxes and teacher pay.

“What’s the incentive for them to drive that long distance, especially if they have a child?” Tudan said. “There can be a brain drain and experience drain going to those places.”

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said there have been three main challenges for teachers through the recession: Teacher salaries haven’t kept up with inflation; the gap between teacher salaries and pay in the private sector is getting wider; and teacher satisfaction has taken a nose dive.

The number of teachers nationally who say they are “very satisfied” has dropped from 62 percent in 2008 to 39 percent, according to a recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher.

Montgomery’s investment in people may be part of why the district has made academic gains and retained teachers over the past decade. The national teacher turnover rate is nearly 17 percent. That figure hovers at about 5 percent for Montgomery and 13 percent for Fairfax and Prince George’s.

Teachers in Prince George’s have seen some of the deepest salary slides in the region. Average teacher salary dropped about 9 percent — from $70,000 to $63,500 — between 2009 and 2013, based on data from the Washington Area Boards of Education.

Kenneth B. Haines, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, said much of the drop in average teacher pay is from two consecutive years of buyouts the system offered older teachers with larger salaries. He says the county shed about 700 positions out of 10,300.

Pay freezes and unpaid furloughs have also pulled down educator pay in Prince George’s, where teachers are already among the lowest paid compared with similar-size districts in the region. It puts the county at a further disadvantage in retaining and recruiting teachers — particularly mid-career educators.

“If your numbers [of mid-career teachers] are already low, and your senior folk leave, who’s going to be the department head or running the schools?” Haines said. “It’s going to be the younger, less-experienced teachers, because you have to have somebody in the [position].”

Prince George’s school officials said the county has approximately $24 million set aside for school pay raises in 2014. The school district aims to “attract and retain highly qualified employees,” said Briant Coleman, spokesman for public school system.

Abe Jeffers, principal of Robert E. Lee High School in Fairfax, said that the school system has had a higher-than-desired turnover rate for years, as teachers know the district lags in pay.

“In a highly competitive market as we are, teachers are going to where they can ply their craft and get the compensation they deserve,” Jeffers said.

The only system in the region that bests Montgomery’s average teacher salary is D.C. Public Schools, which gives its teachers some merit-based raises and bonuses. In 2010, the teachers’ union and school system negotiated a 20 percent increase in base pay for teachers over five years, funded by pledges from private foundations.

Montgomery froze teacher pay for three years starting in 2010. But with two compensation increases for most employees in fiscal 2013, average teacher salary is almost back to 2009 levels.

The raises fueled budget tensions between the Montgomery County Council and Board of Education. Teachers got pay bumps while other county employees got furloughs. And recently, council members have questioned whether the school system should have increased teacher pay when it could have avoided layoffs and shrunk class sizes to help close the achievement gap.

“The school board budget reflected what they thought was important at the time,” Montgomery Council member Valerie Ervin said. “Class size was not important to them, or they would have dealt with it.”

Christopher Lloyd, vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said class size isn’t the key to closing the achievement gap for his district.

“We could have said we’re going to put more boots on the ground because we think that’s going to close the achievement gap and not give any more in salaries, but . . . we would have lost quality people that we have here in the first place,” Lloyd said. “So now we’d have another problem we’ve created.”

It isn’t all about salary. For many teachers, personal issues such as commute times or benefit perks — and work environment — also weigh heavily into their decisions. Teachers also take into account class sizes, workload, leadership and professional advancement.

For Lightman, the former Prince George’s teacher who started working in Montgomery, quality of life and working conditions were the biggest factors in his career change. As a Montgomery resident, Lightman can be on the same schedule as his son, who will start school in five years. Lightman now has a budget to buy equipment for his students. And the Montgomery native now teaches in the same district that educated him.

“The bottom line with teaching is you’re not doing it for the money,” Lightman said. “It definitely is not about the money, but it helps. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it helps.”

T. Rees Shapiro contributed to this report.