Politics & Government

Pay principals based on tests, not experience, legislators say. Some districts disagree.

Some North Carolina school systems are trying to circumvent changes made by state lawmakers to stop paying principals based on how many years of experience they have as educators.

Last year, the General Assembly switched from paying principals based on their education experience to giving them bonuses based on how their students do on exams.

But some school districts, such as Wake County, disagree and are using local money to still pay principals based on how long they’ve been an educator.

“None of the folks in the legislature would choose to go into a trial with a first-year attorney if they had a 15-year veteran available,” Wake County school board member Bill Fletcher said in an interview. “Experience matters when you’re leading a school. Experienced principals do things in a more holistic way than a person who’s brand new in a role.”

Still, Republican legislative leaders and some education groups disagree that more experience should by itself mean higher pay for principals.

Experience vs. age

“I don’t know why we’d pay somebody less for doing the same job just because they’re younger,” said Brenda Berg, CEO of BEST NC, a business coalition focused on education that helped state leaders come up with the new principal pay scale.

In contrast, Fletcher called it “asinine” for an entry-level principal and an experienced principal at the same-size school to get the same base salary from the state.

Historically, North Carolina paid principals based on how many years of education experience they had, how many teachers were at their school and whether they had advanced degrees. Some school districts went on to provide a local salary supplement.

But with North Carolina’s average principal salary ranked near the bottom of the nation, state lawmakers pumped an additional $52.4 million in salaries for principals and assistant principals over the past two years. Many younger administrators got raises.

The average salary for the state’s principals rose from $64,395 in the 2016-17 school year to $71,622 last school year.

The state’s pay raises also came with a new method of compensation. Instead of using experience, principals get a base state salary based on how many students they have at their school. Additional compensation is based on a formula that evaluates whether students showed academic growth on their test scores.

In helping lawmakers develop the new pay scale, Berg said BEST NC’s analysis found no relationship between the experience of a principal and student growth on exams. She said the old system of basing pay on experience without taking into account whether the principal is effective was outmoded.

“Why would you pay a young principal less than their predecessor for running the same school?” Berg said.

For Republican lawmakers who had already expanded the use of performance bonuses for teachers, the idea of using it as well for principals was embraced. The old system of paying principals didn’t reward principals who were moving their schools ahead academically, according to Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Randolph County Republican and retired school administrator.

“If you’ve got a principal who can move a school ahead, they ought to get paid big bonuses,” said Tillman, who chaired a joint legislative committee that looked at principal pay.

But critics complained that the new system could lead to pay cuts for highly experienced principals. Legislators extended through the end of June 2019 a budget provision saying principals couldn’t make less money than they had before the new pay scale was adopted.

Critics also complained that paying bonuses based on test scores could result in principals seeing sharp fluctuations in annual compensation that might cause them not to want to work at academically struggling schools.

Bill Fletcher
Bill Fletcher

Fletcher, the Wake school board member, said providing bonuses based on test results leads could result in school cheating scandals. He cited what happened in Atlanta, where 11 teachers were convicted of racketeering charges.

“Yes we want our students to perform.,” Fletcher said. “But dangling a carrot in front of a principal can lead to other problems.”

The N.C. Association of School Administrators had applauded state lawmakers for raising pay for principals and assistant principals. But Katherine Joyce, the group’s executive director, said it hopes to persuade lawmakers next year to make changes such as adding an experience portion back to the pay scale.

Joyce said the group didn’t know how many of the state’s 116 school districts are still paying principals based on years of experience. But at least some school districts have gone ahead to use their local salary supplement to offset issues they have with the new state pay model.

In varying degrees, Durham, Guilford and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County are among the school systems that are providing extra pay for principals based on their years of experience as educators or as principals.

“During last year’s budget cycle, we made substantive changes to our principal salary schedules.” Arasi Adkins, assistant superintendent for human resources for Durham Public Schools, said in a statement. “As a result, our principals have the highest compensation in North Carolina. Principals also received state increases during this year’s budget cycle, allowing us to maintain that lead.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system is in the beginning phases of working on a new principal pay plan, according to Renee McCoy, a district spokeswoman. She said the district will pull together a focus group of principals to help with this work.

5 percent raise in Wake County

Wake County, which is the state’s largest school system, is further along in the process. School leaders decided last year to give all principals a 5-percent raise while they worked on a new long-term pay schedule.

The new Wake principal compensation model is almost a mirror of the old state scale. It pays principals based on the size of the school, the level of the school, their years of experience, whether they have advanced degrees and whether they lead a magnet school or a multi-track year-round school. Principals can top $150,000 in Wake.

Wake principals who are entitled to state performance bonuses will still get them. But school officials say the impact of the state bonus program will be mitigated by the district’s pay scale.

“This makes our salary schedules more predictable and clear,” Marcie Holland, a Wake senior director of human resources, told school board members in August. “Principals will know from year to year what their salaries are going to be going forward.”

State Sen. Jerry Tillman N.C. General Assembly

Wake’s new scale was developed by a team of administrators that included several principals. Berg, of BEST NC, said it’s not surprising that Wake’s scale pays for experience considering how the district has so many experienced principals.

The new Wake pay scale was approved by the school board on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

It’s heartening that districts like Wake are continuing to recognize that experienced principals deserve more pay, according to Joyce of the N.C. Association of School Administrators.

“What Wake is doing isn’t surprising given that it’s a large urban district that’s growing constantly,” Joyce said, adding that to attract and retain principals Wake needs “to create a workaround to make their pay and compensation for principals competitive here.”

Tillman, the senator, calls it a mistake for school districts to go back to paying principals under the old system. But Tillman said he doubts many districts will have the resources to circumvent the state scale.

“I don’t really give a damn what Wake County does,” Tillman said. “I want principals to be compensated for achieving. I didn’t make it for the counties. I made it for the principals.”

Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer contributed.

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