As Prince William County School Board members prepare for a decisive meeting this week on next year’s budget, at issue is essentially one thing: how to find money to pay for employee salary increases.

The decision on this year’s $863.3 million proposed operating fund budget comes after Wednesday’s raucous and often contentious hearing, where teachers packed the audience to demand a “step” increase — generally a salary bump that takes into account years served and graduate degrees.

The School Board rejected the budget along with a 2 percent across-the-board salary increase for all employees in a 4 to 4 vote. Before the vote, teachers, wearing T-shirts that said “No Teacher Left Behind,” among other slogans, told board members that the 2 percent increase would not suffice and that the School Board was not considering all the right options in proposed cuts.

The vote followed weeks of protest and e-mail blasts to School Board members and other elected officials.

The 2 percent pay raise would not come easily, according to school officials. Under the scenario before the board Wednesday, school officials would defer construction on the planned Devlin Road Elementary School in the Haymarket area by one year for a $2.7 million savings; increase middle school and high school class sizes for a savings of about $3 million; and slash $889,000 from the school system’s central office. Layoffs are not a part of that scenario, officials said. Instead, savings could be gained through attrition and not hiring planned-for positions, among other reductions.

Other cuts would come to a total of $13 million in savings, enough for the 2 percent raise.

Although class sizes would increase slightly, the issue is potentially contentious, because Prince William has the largest average class sizes in the state. Increasing them would mean skirting state maximums, school officials said.

Four members of the School Board agreed with teachers that school officials — including the board itself — had not examined all possible avenues to provide a step increase and that there were probably other areas that could be cut. Board members said money for professional development and the school system’s policy to pay for all Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams would be on the table, among other possibilities.

A step increase would cost the school system an additional $5 million above the cuts already considered, said school spokesman Philip B. Kavits. “That’s a high hurdle,” he said.

School Board members Lisa E. Bell (Neabsco), Gilbert A. Trenum (Brentsville), Betty D. Covington (Potomac) and Alyson A. Satterwhite (Gainesville) voted against the budget.

The other four School Board members, including Chairman Milton C. Johns (At-Large), voted for the budget with the proposed cuts and 2 percent pay increase.

Johns said the school system had absorbed more than $30 million in additional costs to fully fund employees’ retirement. He said the county’s foreclosure crisis meant its budget is particularly squeezed because of declining real estate taxes over the past few years.

Other School Board members in favor of the 2 percent proposal said the county’s pay raises have been in line with surrounding localities.

“We’re up against a lot of odds,” Johns said.

Those who addressed the board said the 2 percent pay bump isn’t enough, because it has been more than three years since the last step increase.

Nicole Faircloth, an English teacher at Patriot High School, said the step increases are not solely about money. “It’s about recognition of your years in the system,” she said.

The School Board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Edward L. Kelly Leadership Center to make a final decision. The budget would then be forwarded to the Board of County Supervisors for adoption.