Higher pay and incentives possible for NC school principals

While state legislators concentrated on raising teacher pay over the last few years, pay for principals and assistant principals drifted to the near bottom of national rankings.

Good principals are considered essential to creating good schools, so lower salaries and high turnover are sources for alarm.

“Everything hinges on the strength of the principal,” said Shirley Prince, executive director of the N.C. Principals & Assistant Principals’ Association.

The mean wage for principals in North Carolina was $68,530 in 2015, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s below the national mean of $93,120.

After talking for the past year about boosting pay for principals and assistant principals, key lawmakers from the House and Senate are preparing a plan they hope to convince their colleagues to adopt next year. Essential elements of the plan include raising base pay and giving principals in poorer counties ways to earn extra money for meeting set goals.

The Joint Legislative Study Committee on School-Based Administrator Pay plans to meet Thursday to work on recommendations it will send to the House and Senate.

The recommendations will include creating a “pot of money” for poorer counties to pay incentives to principals who raise test scores or make other improvements, said Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican who helps lead the committee. The proposal would lay out the criteria for earning extra money and give “superintendents a lot of leeway” in setting principal salaries, he said.

The committee has been working on the plan for a few months. Tillman said in November that the pay package would cost between $30 million and $50 million. He backed off that on Wednesday, saying the total has not been determined.

Districts are faced with the challenge of keeping good principals at schools that need them most. Principal pay is based on years of experience and the number of teachers in the school, so one way principals earn more is by moving to bigger schools. Additionally, many counties offer principals and assistant principals salary supplements. While a few districts offer no extra money, other districts pay supplements averaging more than $20,000 a year.

Legislators are considering incentives as a way to slow principals moving from districts that offer little to no extra pay to districts that can lure them with big raises.

“I’m very concerned about finding a really smart way to incentivize smart principals to be where they’re most needed and stay,” said Brenda Berg, president and CEO of Best NC, a coalition of business leaders that advocates for education improvements.

“I think the current system incentivizes principals to move,” she said. “Reducing turnover is one of the top priorities.”

A 2014 report from the School Leaders Network ranked North Carolina one of 10 states with the highest principal turnover, where principals typically spend 2.7 years to 3.5 years leading the same school.

Principal turnover can derail a school’s improvement efforts, said Prince.

“When a principal leaves a school, it takes as many as five years to get back on track,” she said. “That kind of churn is really damaging to student achievement.”

She supports the idea of giving principals incentives for going to hard-to-staff schools, mentoring other principals, raising test scores and other achievements.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner