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Principals getting well-deserved raises

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The North Carolina General Assembly has correctly focused on raising salaries for teachers during the past six years while compensation for principals and assistant principals left our state at or near the bottom in pay for the leaders of our schools.

While the dramatic increases for administrators enacted by the legislature received very little attention from the media and some educational groups, it is important to point out that an additional $52.4 million was allocated for principals and assistant principals in the past two years. The average pay increase was 10 percent; however, some received as much as 20 percent in increased compensation. That equated to an annual raise of $20,000 per year for many of our state’s most effective principals.

Just as important as the actual dollars is the change in the principals’ salary schedule.  For as long as we can remember, principals were paid primarily based on how many years they had served as principals, the degrees they held and the size of their school. It didn’t matter in terms of pay as to whether the principal was outstanding, mediocre or weak — hard to believe, but that was the tradition even though it makes no sense and is not supported by any credible research.

Just as the legislature is wisely moving away from paying teachers based solely on how long they have lasted in the profession and how many advanced degrees they have, pay for principals is now based partially on growth in student performance. What a novel idea to reward effectiveness!

Business for Educational Success and Transformation, or BEST NC, has been the most effective advocate for moving the profession of school administrators into the 21st century. A more strategic salary structure, which rewards performance, risk-taking and serving in challenging schools, was developed and sold to interested legislators.

Because Governors Hunt and Easley gave me the opportunity to serve as chairman of the State Board of Education for six and a half years, I visited 750 schools in all 115 local school districts. While I don’t claim to be an expert in educational leadership, I could generally size up the effectiveness of the principal after about 15 minutes of touring the school with him or her and listening and talking about daily challenges, successes and disappointments.

Of course, an important key to student success is a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.  However, it is the effective principal who is able to recruit and retain those teachers in his or her school!  Teachers transferring from one school to another often list a lack of support from the principal is the primary reason.

As BEST NC says, “Research suggests that a full quarter of a school’s impact on student learning can be directly attributed to the school leader. Principals are the superheroes of our public schools. They are responsible for establishing and maintaining a positive school culture focused on student success; they lead teams averaging 50 adults — recruiting, developing and retaining outstanding teachers and staff; they manage an operating budget averaging $5 million; and they serve as the glue between the school and its surrounding community.”

Instead of praising the legislature for this historic commitment to our best principals, some focused on the unintended consequences of the new salary schedule resulting in less pay for a relatively small number of principals. Even though this could be justified because of  some ineffective principals, it was recognized that was not the intent of the new salary schedule and was unfair to those hurt by the new system. So the legislature passed provisions in two budgets to keep this from happening. That fact is often overlooked by supporters of the worn-out status quo system of paying our school leaders.

While the new salary schedule may conceivably need some continued review and minor tweaks, the Republicans in the General Assembly need to be commended for recognizing that the principalship is practically a 24/7 challenge, 365 days a year.

Phil Kirk is a former state lawmaker, cabinet secretary and State Board of Education chairman who serves as a panelist on “N.C. Spin.”

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