- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

RICHMOND (AP) — Clarke County’s small, rural school system offers autonomy and an environment that encourages innovation — two things elementary school teacher Donna Michael doesn’t think she would get at a much larger school system.

But right across the Blue Ridge Mountains is Loudoun County, one of the nation’s fastest growing localities, with a pay scale that offers $20,000 more per year for the most experienced teachers.

Until now, teachers like Miss Michael have had to pick one over the other.

“It’s always tempting to cross over the mountain,” she said.

Now, a program that has supplemented teacher pay in Virginia’s Washington suburbs for years will include Clarke and other localities bordering more urban Northern Virginia.

State officials began the cost-to-compete supplement to make Northern Virginia school systems more competitive with nearby Maryland localities in hiring and keeping teachers.

That and local funding made salaries balloon at a higher rate than in surrounding counties, and teachers soon were lured by the short commute to a windfall.

This year, lawmakers agreed to extend the supplemental program to Clarke, Warren and Spotsylvania counties and to Fredericksburg.

The funding will start at 10 percent of the Northern Virginia rate this year and 25 percent for the next school year, with further expansion planned.

The resulting $600,000 per year in teacher salaries for Clarke County would be a big chunk of funding for a school system with 2,200 students, said Matt Eberhardt, an assistant superintendent.

“I would anticipate or hope that our salary scales would look very much like Loudoun County’s” in the future, he said.

The Loudoun County school system employs 4,000 and has been hiring an average of 700 teachers each year, said Wayde Byard, the system’s spokesman.

He said state-of-the-art equipment and a supportive community — not just salary — draw many teachers to the county.

Expanding the state pay-supplement program to neighboring localities won’t have that big an effect on recruiting for Loudoun, he said.

For Miss Michael, the program’s expansion offers hope to teachers who until now have felt pulled in two directions. It’s even better for students.

“If all the good teachers go for the money and go across the county line, what is left for our children?” Miss Michael said. “There are top-notch kids in Clarke.”

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