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Principals in the policy spotlight

The latest sessions of the General Assembly have highlighted the issue of principal pay. While teacher pay has long been a subject of intense scrutiny by the legislature, principal pay has not been addressed. For years, North Carolina has ranked second to last in the states and Washington, D.C., for principal pay.

“Our North Carolina principals are very underpaid when compared to their national counterparts,” said Shirley Prince, executive director of the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals’ Association and program director for the North Carolina Alliance for School Leadership Development (NCASLD). “We had a dire situation.” 

But actions of the General Assembly have begun to bolster the profession that some call the heart of the school. 

Transforming principal preparation

Beginning in the 2015 long session of the General Assembly, lawmakers began examining possible transformation of principal preparation. They appropriated the first $1 million, and in a later short session, another $3.5 million. The money was used to get NCASLD up and running. The goal of the organization was to identify principal preparation organizations in North Carolina that can create strong programs for training principals. The first principal prep programs identified by NCASLD launched at the beginning of 2017. 

At present, the funds from the state legislature have funded six “cutting-edge” principal preparation programs, Prince said. That number was whittled down from about 20 applicants. At the end of this school year, the programs will graduate 120 principals, which is a good start, Prince said. 

“The problem is it’s only 120, and we need more,” she said. “So we are going to keep working at that, and hopefully one day we will be able to have these kinds of programs accessible to every district in the state.” 

For the next five years, NCASLD will be studying the programs and their methods, identifying the best practices for training principals, and ultimately making a recommendation to the State Board of Education on how to transform principal preparation in all of the principal training programs around the state. 

Principal pay

The most recent long session of the General Assembly addressed the elephant in the room of public education: principal pay. Not only was North Carolina ranked low for principal pay in the nation, but there were extensive issues with the way principals were paid on the previous salary schedule. Problems included principals who went years without raises from the state, principals who were paid less than teachers they oversaw, and more. EducationNC reported extensively on these issues. 

The legislature sought to fix many of these problems by revamping the principal pay schedule and pumping money into administrator salaries. 

The previous principal pay schedule was structured around years of experience and the number of teachers principals oversaw. The new schedule focuses on a school’s student population and whether or not that school meets or exceeds academic growth. 

The chart below shows the schedule. 

A principal receives a base salary based on how many students are in a school. If the students in that school meet growth, the principal receives a higher salary than the base. And if the students exceed growth, the principal receives an even higher salary.

As shown in the chart, a principal of the smallest population school could make as much as a principal at the highest population school depending on the growth factor. If the principal at the lowest population school had a population that exceeded growth, he or she would make the same amount as a principal at the highest population school if that student population did not meet or exceed growth. 

Under the new budget, principals will receive an average 8.6 percent salary increase over two years and assistant principals receive a 13.4 percent average salary increase over the biennium.

Challenges with principal pay schedule

While almost everyone agrees the new pay schedule improves on the old one, some issues remain. 

At an August State Board of Education meeting, members of the board began discussing some of the issues. 

“It’s not perfect, but frankly we shouldn’t let the desire for perfection get in the way of improvement,” said board member Eric Davis in an interview. 

He said board members discussed situations in which an assistant principal might make more than a principal. This problem could arise due to the fact that assistant principals are paid differently than principals under the legislature’s new plan. Rather than being paid on the principal schedule, assistant principals receive what they would get as a teacher with a commensurate level of experience plus 17 percent. 

Prince added that in the new schedule some teachers might get paid more than principals that oversee them and/or have similar years of experience. 

These are both issues that existed under the old pay schedule as well. The General Assembly previously addressed the issue by instituting a rule that a principal could be paid on the assistant principal or teacher salary schedule if they would make more given their years of experience. Prince said that under the new schedule, some principals will again have to take advantage of that rule in order to make the amount of money they believe they are owed. 

State Board Vice Chair Buddy Collins said in an interview that there are also concerns that the structure of the pay schedule would not give principals an incentive to oversee a low-performing school. Since those schools are less likely to meet or exceed growth, a principal might be worried that in overseeing such a school he or she would receive only the base salary. 

“The real takeaway was that we need to get with districts and figure out what issues if any there were and try to get the issues resolved,” Collins said. 

Prince also said that tying salaries to growth could be problematic. She said in some of the smaller schools, one teacher could shift the growth measure for the entire school. And, since teacher salaries are not tied to growth, the principal would be the only one who benefited in salary by improved academic growth. That could create a dysfunctional dynamic between principals and teachers, she said. 

The State Board’s legislative liaison, Cecilia Holden, was tasked with investigating the State Board’s concerns with staff at DPI, the legislature, and stakeholder groups.

She noted some other concerns raised by the new pay schedule, including one shared by Prince. 

While the salaries under the new schedule are an improvement for some principals, they are not an improvement for all. For those principals there is a “hold harmless” provision that means if someone made more under the old principal pay schedule, he or she may continue to receive that salary. At present, the provision only lasts for a year. 

“We want to make sure that hold harmless provision is extended for as long as it needs to be,” Prince said. 

Holden also noted that the “hold harmless” provision references the principal pay schedule, but because some principals were paid on the teacher or assistant principal pay schedule under the previous plan, it could cause problems for principals under the new schedule. 

Holden also said that another worry is that some districts may use the state funds to replace the local supplement they have provided principals, instead of increasing principal salaries by the amount increased by the state. 

“The General Assembly’s intent was to elevate the pay that principals receive in their paychecks,” Holden said in an e-mail. “The SBE (State Board of Education) supports that policy.”

In addition, Prince pointed out that the new pay schedule eliminates longevity pay for principals and assistant principals with many years of experience.

The State Board of Education heard a presentation about problems with the new principal pay schedule at this week’s meeting and continued discussing the issue.  

“I don’t think it was anybody’s intent for principals to lose pay as a result of this or be placed in a situation where their pay is less compared to the assistants that they’re working with,” Collins said Wednesday. “I have three different principals who are very endeavored principals, over 30 years, who believe that they’re being adversely affected to the point that they thought that they need to retire, which is certainly not what we want.”

Board member Wayne McDevitt questioned the process by which the principal pay schedule was developed.

 “We had this conversation yesterday around principal pay,” he said. “For me it begged the question…where did the language in the bill come from?”

Collins brought forth a motion Thursday directing the Department of Public Instruction and Superintendent Mark Johnson to collect information about the problems with the principal pay schedule and take it to the General Assembly to be rectified. Before the motion came up for a vote, Collins said he thought the motion was necessary because, he said, Johnson had said DPI financial staff did not have the time to do this. When Collins questioned Johnson during the meeting, Johnson said that if Collins thought DPI needed to do this, Collins needed to make the motion. The motion passed. 

Despite some of these issues being discussed, Prince said that the new principal pay plan is still a step in the right direction. 

“We are predicting that about 75 percent of our principals will really benefit significantly from this pay plan,” she said. 

Her hope is that this will not be the last time the General Assembly smiles kindly on principals in North Carolina. 

Brenda Berg, president and CEO of Business for Educational Success and Transformation (BEST NC) — a bipartisan, nonprofit group of business leaders, agrees that the new schedule is a good move for the state. 

“Fundamentally, it is a light years improvement over what we had,” she said. 

She said there are technical corrections that need to be made to address some of the problems, but given the large task the legislature had of revamping the way principals have been paid for years, issues were bound to crop up. And it is going to take more than one round of legislation to get principals to where the state wants them to be, she said. 

“We know that everything else that’s done in education, whatever the strategy is, requires a great leader,” Berg said. “We’re putting our energy…behind this, because we think it’s so important.” 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.