English teacher Kathy Hansen leads a discussion at W.T. Woodson High School in 2014. A group of teachers was demonstrating in Fairfax County for better compensation by "dressing down." (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

With 10 years of experience and a master’s degree, a mid-career teacher in Fairfax County can earn $15,000 more by moving slightly east, to Arlington County, the highest-paying suburban school district in the Washington region. In Maryland, the average teacher salary in wealthy Montgomery County is $9,300 more than the average teacher salary in neighboring Prince George’s County.

These disparities, highlighted in a report from the Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE), are making it difficult for districts that pay on the lower end of the spectrum to attract and retain teachers, school officials said, especially as the demand for teachers grows in tandem with student enrollment. A nationwide teacher shortage also has made it particularly difficult for districts to find qualified teachers for special-education students and for English-language learners.

The report “clearly demonstrates the challenge we face in recruiting and retaining the very best teachers,” Fairfax Superintendent Karen Garza said in a statement. Fairfax County ranked fifth among the region’s Maryland and Virginia school districts — not including D.C. Public Schools — with an average teacher salary of $67,589.

The annual WABE guide shows how 10 area school districts compare on several measures, offering stark contrasts between them. The region’s school districts vary widely in what they pay teachers, how crammed classrooms are and what they spend per student.

How surburban school districts measure up

The gap between the highest- and lowest-paying large districts, as measured by average teacher salary, has lessened slightly during the past four years. In 2011, Montgomery’s average teacher salary was $15,000 more than that of Prince William County, which was struggling with both the collapse of the housing market and a sudden boom in enrollment. Now, Arlington has the highest average teacher salary, at $78,000, and an average teacher salary of about $13,500 more than Prince William, which has the lowest teacher pay among Washington-region districts with more than 10,000 students.

Pay remains of deep concern to school officials, particularly in large districts that have to hire hundreds of teachers every year to keep up with enrollment and to replace teachers who retire or leave the district.

Fairfax County, which employs nearly 15,500 teachers, surveyed 459 teachers this year who left for reasons other than retirement or termination. The survey found that nearly 57 percent cited pay as a reason for their departure. About 70 percent cited personal reasons as a factor.

The school system also is finding that filling jobs is a challenge; as of early October, the district needed 54 special-education teachers.

A district’s average salary also can be reflective of the kind of teacher a district can afford. Deirdra McLaughlin, the assistant superintendent for finance and management in Arlington, said the district’s high average salary is partially explained by the system’s tendency to hire experienced teachers with graduate degrees who command higher salaries.

Teachers in Manassas Park — a small city system that employs about 250 classroom teachers — have an average salary that is $20,000 less than Arlington’s, but the district’s teachers tend to be younger, said Shannon Watson, the school system’s human resources director.

There also is anecdotal evidence that some teachers are leaving districts for better-
paying jobs in nearby school districts. D.C. Public Schools does not participate in the WABE survey, and a spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment; but in 2013, the average teacher salary was $77,500, the highest in the region at the time. That may be a factor in drawing in teachers from suburban school districts.

Theresa Mitchell Dudley, the president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, said she had a colleague who was hired away by Montgomery, where the average teacher salary is $9,300 higher.

“We recruit them, we train them, and then, because of financial reasons, we lose a lot of them,” Dudley said.

But even in the midst of tough budget seasons, many school districts have made an effort to give teachers raises to stay competitive. Prince George’s has made moves to increase salaries and give cost-of-living increases to its teachers.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. ­Baker III (D) made a bid this year to dramatically increase taxes in a county with higher-than-average rates so he could give the schools $136 million to help close the pay gap for teachers. Baker’s plan was rejected, and the county instead adopted a budget that gave the school $34 million in new money.

Prince William also fought for teacher raises last school year, even as a harrowing budget cycle threatened a host of school system programs.

“It has been a challenge, and it has been a priority of the School Board and others to at least find ways to increase salaries,” said Prince William schools spokesman Phil Kavits.

Since the vast majority of school budgets go to paying school employees, teacher pay is closely tied to how much a district is spending per student.

Arlington spends $18,616 per student, the most of any district in the WABE report. That money translates into high teacher salaries and some of the region’s lowest class sizes.

“If you really take excellence seriously, you have to pay for it,” McLaughlin said.

Prince William, which saw a major student population growth during the economic downturn, remains at the bottom of the per-pupil spending list among large districts, spending $10,724 per student. Class sizes have grown and teacher salaries remain low relative to neighboring districts, which means Prince William teachers are paid less to educate more students.

The school system has the largest classes, packing an average of more than 30 students into high school classrooms. That’s an average of three more students per class than in Montgomery and Loudoun counties.

Prince William has begun bringing down class sizes by adding teachers, but that has proven expensive: The county estimates that it costs about $1 million to reduce class sizes by one student for one grade in the district of more than 88,000. Last year, the county was able to reduce middle school class sizes by one student, with an average of 29.6 students per class.