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When it comes to improving education, leaders in the field and in the General Assembly usually talk about teachers. Often overlooked is the role that principals play in ensuring high-quality instruction in their schools. This series highlights the often unsung contribution that principals play in high performance, and it explores some of the issues that are holding principals back. Today, we're talking about the issue of principal pay in North Carolina.

Yesterday we talked about the important role that principals play in turning around low-performing schools. Given how essential their role is, you may assume that principals get paid pretty well in North Carolina. But the fact is that the state is 50th in the nation (including Washington, D.C.) for principal pay, even when including local supplements.

“If we’re 50th in the nation, what we’re doing isn’t the best way to go about getting the best principal in the best location,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, during a committee meeting in October.

The General Assembly looks poised to tackle the issue of principal pay. During the short session of the General Assembly, lawmakers set up a joint legislative study committee on school-based administrator pay, which began meeting in October.

Just last week, that committee unveiled and approved its report on how principal pay can be reformed to ensure that the state has high-quality principals.

A quick primer

First, let’s quickly review the problems that this committee was meant to address. The issues with principal pay go well beyond that fact that North Carolina principals are some of the lowest paid in the nation. The salary schedule used to determine how much principals should be paid based on their experience is also problematic.

We documented in detail the problems with the principal salary schedule in January 2015. Principals have to wait years for raises from the state, teachers can be paid more than their principals, and principals jump between districts to get a better local salary supplement. Alexis Schauss, director of the Division of School Business at the State Department of Public Instruction, presented in October about the salary schedule issues. See her presentation document here or watch the video of her presentation below. Go here for a history of the school-based administrator salary schedule in North Carolina.

Solutions

In order to solve the problems associated with both low principal pay and the messy principal pay schedule, the committee suggested last week that the General Assembly consider one of two possibilities.

The first would be an allotment for principals that would get rid of the salary schedule altogether and give school districts enough money to increase each principal’s salary by at least 3 percent. Under this plan, rather than sticking to a salary schedule, districts could use the funds to pay principals as they see fit.

Tillman, co-chair of the committee, said the 3 percent is just a starting point.

“I’m hoping we can go higher than that,” he said.

This idea is similar to one that Tillman had as far back at March 2015, when he said he planned to introduce legislation scrapping the principal salary schedule and give districts allotments to pay principals how they wanted. That legislation never got introduced.

This is also essentially the original idea the committee considered in October, one that faced considerable pushback from district superintendents and other educators in attendance at the meeting.

They said they preferred sticking with some sort of salary schedule.

For instance, Frank Till, Superintendent of Cumberland County Schools, said at that October meeting that he thought a system without a salary schedule could get complicated.

“I’m worried about the inequities,” Till said. “People come and suddenly want to get more. And it’s not hard before you can get that off track real easy.”

Which brings us to the second alternative the committee put in its report. The report offers the General Assembly the option to link the principal salary schedule with the teacher salary schedule at the master’s level, with a certain extra percentage allotted principals.

This is an important move because many of the problems with the principal and assistant principal salary schedules stem from the unlinking of those schedules from the teacher pay schedule. All of these educator salary schedules used to run in a continuum, with principals sitting at the top. But when they became unlinked, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for assistant principals or, in some cases, principals to make less than the teachers they oversaw, even if they had the same level of experience.

This recommendation would prevent that situation. Along with it, a separate recommendation of the committee is to also link the assistant principal salary schedule with the teacher salary schedule at the master’s level, plus a certain extra percentage for assistant principals.

Bonuses

Another recommendation put forth by the committee would be to provide bonuses to administrators in low-wealth districts.

Basically, principals in low-wealth districts could get bonuses if they were able to achieve certain academic results in their districts. Principals in low-performing schools could also get bonuses.

This helps with the problem of administrators either not wanting to work in low-wealth districts or low-performing schools, or choosing to only stay a short while in such environments.

Often, these districts don’t have the supplemental local funding to provide extra money for the principal’s salary, meaning these principals usually get paid less than their peers in more wealthy counties like Wake or Orange. Often principals leave rural, poor districts for more affluent neighboring counties for this reason.

This bonus system would be a way to help even the playing field.

If there are leftover funds from the money that is set aside for bonuses, districts could use that for professional development for principals.

A long-term plan

The final recommendation put forth by the committee is to develop a long-range plan for increasing administrator pay.

“Regardless of the specifics of any school-based administrator compensation plan adopted by the General Assembly, the General Assembly should consider a multi-year plan to raise school-based administrator pay significantly to ensure that North Carolina is competitive in attracting the talent it needs. This should occur as soon as may be appropriate in light of other budget pressures and depending on future state revenues,” the report states.

After adopting the report, Tillman said the recommendations would be presented to leaders on both sides of the General Assembly for consideration as a budget provision during the upcoming long session of the General Assembly.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.