Changes in NC principal pay could create big pay cuts, school upheaval

Jackie Barone, principal of CMS’ Piedmont Middle School, says she could see a pay cut under the new system, even though her school was graded A+ and she just won a national award.
Jackie Barone, principal of CMS’ Piedmont Middle School, says she could see a pay cut under the new system, even though her school was graded A+ and she just won a national award.

Veteran principals could see pay cuts of $10,000 or more because North Carolina is changing the way it pays them, prompting concerns that some of the state’s most experienced school leaders will retire early to avoid a smaller salary.

As part of the Republican-led General Assembly’s efforts to change public education, this year the state changed from paying principals based on their education experience to giving principals bonuses based on how their students do on exams. Many younger principals will see raises this year, but veteran principals could see pay cuts down the road.

Supporters say the new plan provides a needed increase for underpaid principals while putting a focus on improving how students perform. But critics worry the change will discourage principals from working at struggling schools and lead to veteran principals retiring.

“When we’re looking at top performers and giving them a challenging assignment where we need them ... that’s not going to be as easy as it once was,” said Kathy Elling, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools associate superintendent for school performance.

Next year’s pay could drop dramatically for leaders of small specialty schools in CMS, such as those on college campuses. Some of those are now led by veteran principals earning well over $100,000 a year.

Lawmakers agreed to make sure that no principals saw pay cuts this school year. But that “hold harmless” budget provision expires at the end of June.

“We like what we do,” Matt Wight, 57, principal of Apex Friendship High School in Wake County, said in a recent interview. “We run pretty good schools. We’ve got some productive years left, but we’re not going to do it for $30,000 less.”

Piedmont Middle, a magnet school in uptown Charlotte, was one of 15 CMS schools to earn an A+ rating on the recently released state grades. Principal Jackie Barone, who has been a principal about five years, was just named administrator of the year by the National Association for Gifted Children.

Yet she says her state pay would go down under the new system, and she doesn’t seem to qualify for any of the new bonuses. “I think I’m going to lose,” she said, though she’s waiting to see how the details play out.

But state Sen. Joel Ford, who has a child at Piedmont, asked the state to run the numbers after reading about Barone’s concern. A fiscal analyst said that based on Piedmont’s enrollment and the school’s strong performance, Barone’s state pay should rise from $59,904 last year to $85,216. Her final total will depend on bonuses and the local supplement.

Sen. Jerry Tillman praised the new system as being a better way to pay principals. But Tillman, a retired school administrator, said he thinks lawmakers will make some tweaks to the program, including extending the “hold harmless” language.`

“Principals need to be at ease about that,” said Tillman, an Archdale Republican and Senate majority whip. “We’re not going to have any principals take a dramatic pay cut. We’ll take the hold harmless as far as we need to take that.”

In 2016, North Carolina’s average base salary of $64,209 a year for principals put the state near the bottom of national rankings. A joint legislative study committee co-chaired by Tillman called for changes in the salary schedule.

For years, North Carolina paid principals based on their years of experience, whether they had advanced degrees and how many teachers were at their school. Local school districts often supplement what the state provides.

CMS offers one of the state’s most generous local supplements for principals. In 2016 CMS principals’ base salaries ranged from $69,000 to $172,650, with bonuses and stipends ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000.

For 2017-18 the CMS board approved 7 percent raises for principals and their assistants, using local money to boost the state raises, which averaged 3 percent. That was designed to offset the loss of state longevity pay for school administrators.

This year the state dropped experience and degrees from the new pay scale, which is now based solely on how many students attend a principal’s school. In CMS, high-poverty neighborhood schools and specialized magnet schools are often smaller than neighborhood schools in more affluent areas, where a good reputation can translate to overflow enrollment requiring clusters of mobile classrooms.

Starting this year, principals can make up to $15,000 a year in bonuses depending on how much growth their students show on state exams.

The state raised the bottom of the pay scale from $52,656 a year to $61,751. But the state also lowered the top of the scale from $111,984 a year (not including longevity pay) to $88,921.

The new scale, not including bonuses, could raise the average pay for principals to more than $71,000 a year. The state is providing an additional $35.4 million this year to pay principals and assistant principals.

“The idea was to give more pay for principals across the pay scale and to give more pay to principals who could move their schools to a higher performing level,” said Tillman, who added that lawmakers “believe in paying for performance.”

In recent years, state lawmakers have also started new performance-based bonuses for teachers and provided bigger raises for younger teachers. But teachers are still paid based on their experience.

Several State Board of Education members expressed concerns with the new system after hearing several examples last week of how it could affect individual principals.

In one example, a middle school principal with 14 years of experience would see her state base salary rise $21,461 to $85,216, not including any state bonuses and what she’d get from her district. But if that principal is moved to a struggling school and can’t raise performance, she could see her base salary drop to $71,014.

“Those principals who are in low-performing schools, it is going to be almost impossible for us to find principals who would even want to take on that challenge because eventually they’re going to lose salary based on this model,” Amanda Bell, an adviser to the state board, said at the September meeting.

Tillman, the senator, said he’d like the state to offer incentives for principals to work at low-performing schools.

In another example, an elementary school principal with 30 years experience could see his state base salary drop $19,854 to $67,926 after the end of this school year.

A.L. Collins, vice chairman of the state board, gave anecdotes of veteran principals in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system who are considering early retirement because they are facing a 30 percent pay cut.

“I just cannot imagine that the people over at the General Assembly intended for this result to take place,” Collins said at the meeting. “I just cannot imagine the unintended consequences of all this as folks try to figure out where they need to move in order to make the most amount of money. I just feel for the principals.”

Collins said the new pay scale sends the message to veteran principals that they should just retire.

Elling and other CMS administrators say they’ll wait to see whether the state adjusts the plan, then consider how and whether to adjust local spending for the 2018-19 budget. For now, they’ve been meeting one-on-one with principals to talk about how things might play out.

“It really depends on what the (CMS) board decides,” said interim human resources chief Vincent Smith.

“And what the budget can handle,” said CMS compensation director Pat Rocca.

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, said she’s hoping the state won’t try to shift the burden onto school districts.

Joyce said her group will lobby state lawmakers to make changes such as restoring experience as a component in principal pay and extending the hold harmless salary provision. But she said the new state pay plan is a good start overall.

“Any time there’s a new plan, there’s going to be bumps in the road,” Joyce said. “That’s where we’re focused on changing.”

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