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Legislature poised to address principal pay and leadership development

A little more than 100 days ago, EducationNC launched. Slightly more than a month before that, EducationNC CEO Mebane Rash plucked me from the life of the freelancer and dropped me in the roiling waters of North Carolina education.

My first project was an examination of the state principal salary schedule. I worked on that almost up to launch day, and when it came out, the findings were definitive: the principal salary schedule is a hot mess. 

We found that the outdated schedule left some principals to languish for years — as many as 24 years — without moving up the schedule. A lack of continuity between the schedule for principals and the new salary schedule for teachers meant that some principals made little more and sometimes less than those they supervised in the classroom. And disparate district resources and strategies meant that in some areas principals could negotiate for higher pay supplemented by local dollars, while in others they were stuck with what the state gave them. Principal turnover is also an issue, and the state needs to report all transfers, not just those outside the district.  We have watched eagerly to see what, if anything, the General Assembly would do this session to address these issues. 

With crossover approaching, it’s time to take a look. 

Four bills have been filed in the House and one in the Senate touching on principals and principal pay. I’m going to take a look at three. 

Senate Bill 121 and House Bill 359 are similar, though not identical. You can see their shared vision in their titles: The Excellence in School Leadership Act and Excellence in School Leadership, respectively. 

They both address principal pay. One way is through a three percent raise for principals. The other way is a $2,000 bonus for principals of schools that exceed annual growth expectations for student achievement. 

The third piece of both bills is a directive that the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee study school leadership and how it can be improved. The language is slightly different in each, but very similar. They both essentially want the committee to look at how to best: “attract, prepare, induct, develop, support, and reward principals and assistant principals.”

That’s language from SB 121, but as I said, the bills are similar.

Both bills talk about looking at bonuses, differentiated pay, mentoring, and principal preparations program. The differences are mainly ones of word choice. 

The Senate bill is of particular interest, because its primary sponsor, Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), has said that he wants to scrap the principal salary schedule and let localities pay principals as they see fit. He said at one time, he would introduce a bill to this effect. And at another time, he told me he would add it to SB 121, which he sponsored. So far, neither has happened. 

Shirley Prince, executive director of North Carolina Principals & Assistant Principals’ Association is glad to see the General Assembly tackling these issues. 

“I’m happy to see that both the Senate and the House have filed similar bills that would provide principals with a much needed increase in compensation,” she said in an e-mail. “That tells me that they recognize the unintended inequities that were created with last year’s new salary schedule for teachers and want to address the problem without delay.”

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Bladen County School System and meet with principals for their monthly check-in. They talk, collaborate, trade notes, critique the classrooms of the school where they meet (which changes monthly), and generally just get a feel for what’s going on in their district. 

I asked some of the principals about principal pay and some of the problems with the principal pay schedule. 

Demetrice Johnson-Jones, a first-year principal at East Arcadia Elementary School, said the compensation doesn’t match up to the increased responsibility. 

“I don’t make much as a principal… I could probably make more as a teacher,” she said. “I make about $100 more. The only difference is I’ve switched from ten months to 12 months.”  

Ronald Coley, principal at Booker T. Washington Primary School said that it’s not just principals who aren’t making enough, it’s all workers in the education field. I brought up Sen. Tillman’s suggestion to scrap the principal salary schedule. 

“Sounds like voodoo economics,” Coley said. “I mean it sounds good, but what are the implications of that? The devil is in the details.”

Not all the principals I talked to were dissatisfied. 

Priscilla Brayboy, a first year principal at Bladen Lakes Primary, had no complaints. 

“I’m satisfied with what I’m doing and what I get,” she said. “I don’t do it for money.”

Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), chair of both the House K-12 Education and Education Appropriations committee, thinks something needs to be done about how the state handles principals. He is a sponsor on three of the four House bills on principals that have been filed this session, including HB 359 and House Bill 902: Transforming Principal Preparation. 

He says he is a fan of the dynamic leader theory of history. He explains this theory as meaning that dynamic leaders make all the difference in how things turn out, not events themselves. 

“Good leaders are critical to success,” he said. 

That, of course, applies to principals. To a large extent, they determine the success or failure of a school.

Horn thinks the General Assembly has not paid enough attention to principal pay, preparation or development. House Bill 902 sets up a competitive grant program to help develop effective school principals. 

The idea is to identify those skills and qualities that make a principal effective and then teach them. 

This goes along with Horn’s thinking on education leadership, which is that just because someone is a good teacher, doesn’t mean he or she will be a good principal. 

“Principals are not uberteachers,” he said. “Different skillset.” 

And if it’s not a skill set that’s inherent to rising administrators, then it’s one that will need to be taught, perhaps through this grant program. 

Back to Bladen County — watching the principals gathered in the library at a local elementary school, I was struck by how much development they are trying to do on their own. This once-a-month meeting is a chance for them to critique each other’s schools and suggest room for improvement. As a writer, it reminds me of writing groups, where somebody presents their story and then everybody else tells them what works and what doesn’t. Short of an MFA program, it’s one of the best ways for a writer to improve. It seems like perhaps it isn’t a bad way for principals to up their game either. 

Having said that, I doubt there was a single principal in Bladen County who would turn away the opportunity for state-funded professional development. And I know there were quite a few who would like to see more money. 

So on both those fronts, they await the actions of the General Assembly to see what improvement are going to trickle down their way.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.