Some principals face big pay cuts. What does that mean for your kid’s school?

Veteran principals could see pay cuts of $10,000 or more because North Carolina is changing the way it pays them, prompting concerns that some of the state’s most experienced school leaders will retire early to avoid a smaller salary.

As part of the Republican-led General Assembly’s efforts to change public education, this year the state changed from paying principals based on their education experience to giving principals bonuses based on how their students do on exams. Many younger principals will see raises this year, but veteran principals could see pay cuts down the road.

Supporters say the new plan provides a needed increase for underpaid principals while putting a focus on improving how students perform. But critics worry the change will discourage principals from working at struggling schools and lead to veteran principals retiring.

Lawmakers agreed to make sure that no principals saw pay cuts this school year. But that “hold harmless” budget provision expires at the end of June.

“We like what we do,” Matt Wight, 57, principal of Apex Friendship High School in Apex, said in an interview this week. “We run pretty good schools. We’ve got some productive years left, but we’re not going to do it for $30,000 less.”

Wight is among dozens of Wake County principals who district officials estimate would see pay cuts in 2018 under the new state salary schedule. Wight and other education leaders say they know veteran principals who are looking at taking early retirement due to the potential pay cut.

Sen. Jerry Tillman praised the new system as being a better way to pay principals. But Tillman, a retired school administrator, said he thinks lawmakers will make some tweaks to the program, including extending the “hold harmless” language.

“Principals need to be at ease about that,” said Tillman, an Archdale Republican and Senate majority whip. “We’re not going to have any principals take a dramatic pay cut. We’ll take the hold harmless as far as we need to take that.”

In 2016, North Carolina’s average base salary of $64,209 a year for principals put the state near the bottom on national rankings. A joint legislative study committee co-chaired by Tillman called for changes in the salary schedule.

For years, North Carolina paid principals based on their years of experience, whether they had advanced degrees and how many teachers were at their school. Local school districts often supplement what the state provides.

But the state dropped experience and degrees from the new pay scale, which is now based solely on how many students attend a principal’s school. Principals can now also make up to $15,000 a year in bonuses depending on whether their students show growth on state exams.

The state raised the bottom of the pay scale from $52,656 a year to $61,751. But the state also lowered the top of the scale from $111,984 a year (not including longevity pay) to $88,921.

The new scale, not including bonuses, could raise the average pay for principals to more than $71,000 a year. The state is providing an additional $35.4 million this year to pay principals and assistant principals.

“The idea was to give more pay for principals across the pay scale and to give more pay to principals who could move their schools to a higher performing level,” said Tillman, who added that lawmakers “believe in paying for performance.”

In recent years, state lawmakers have also started new performance-based bonuses for teachers and provided bigger raises for younger teachers. But teachers are still paid based on their experience.

Several State Board of Education members expressed concerns with the new system after hearing several examples last week of how it could affect individual principals.

In one example, a middle school principal with 14 years of experience would see her state base salary rise $21,461 to $85,216, not including any state bonuses and what she’d get from her district. But if that principal is moved to a struggling school and can’t raise performance, she could see her base salary drop to $71,014.

“Those principals who are in low-performing schools, it is going to be almost impossible for us to find principals who would even want to take on that challenge because eventually they’re going to lose salary based on this model,” Amanda Bell, an adviser to the state board, said at last week’s meeting.

Tillman, the senator, said he’d like the state to offer incentives for principals to work at low-performing schools.

In another example, an elementary school principal with 30 years experience could see his state base salary drop $19,854 to $67,926 after the end of this school year.

A.L. Collins, vice chairman of the state board, gave anecdotes of veteran principals in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system who are considering early retirement because they are facing a 30 percent pay cut.

“I just cannot imagine that the people over at the General Assembly intended for this result to take place,” Collins said at the meeting. “I just cannot imagine the unintended consequences of all this as folks try to figure out where they need to move in order to make the most amount of money. I just feel for the principals.”

Collins said the new pay scale sends the message to veteran principals that they should just retire.

Wight, the Wake County principal, said veteran principals like himself consider the new pay scale a slap in the face because it shows the state doesn’t value experience. He said it’s also a concern that the state isn’t recognizing the challenge of running a large school by paying the same salary to principals who have more than 1,300 students.

“We love our jobs and we love what we do, but it’s not an easy job,” said Wight, whose pay could be cut by $11,000 under the new scale. “It’s an incredibly difficult job and I think that people are discouraged by what the state is doing.”

Wight said the new pay scale was a major source of concern at a districtwide meeting this week of principals. Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill reassured veteran principals that the district would work to try to mitigate any pay cuts they might face under the new state pay scale.

In Wake County, a third of the district’s 183 principals could see pay cuts under the new scale, according to Marcie Holland, a senior director in human resources for Wake.

Wake County, whose average principal salary supplement is $27,701 a year, would be in a better position than less-affluent districts to pick up whatever the state might stop providing. But Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, said she’s hoping the state won’t try to shift the burden onto school districts.

Joyce said her group will lobby state lawmakers to make changes such as restoring experience as a component in principal pay and extending the hold harmless salary provision. But she said the new state pay plan is a good start overall.

“Any time there’s a new plan, there’s going to be bumps in the road,” Joyce said. “That’s where we’re focused on changing.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui