The initial plan to restructure the way school principals are paid in North Carolina calls for an end of the complicated pay scale. In its place, lawmakers propose giving superintendents the power to negotiate salaries with principals, and to provide performance bonuses.

Lawmakers from the Joint Legislative Study Committee on School-Based Administrator Pay presented a “four-pronged” plan to overhaul the way principals are paid at a hearing last month. The plan also suggested that assistant principals would still be paid on a scale, according to the initial proposal, but their scale might align with the teacher pay scale at a higher rate per years of experience.

School-based administrator pay has remained stagnant in recent years, and now North Carolina ranks 50th nationwide in principal pay. Principals and assistant principals did receive a small raise and bonus combination this year, but it didn’t move North Carolina out of the basement.

The easiest solution would be to give all school-based administrators a hefty raise by increasing the pay scales, but that’s more complicated than it sounds. According to NCDPI, there are 1500 different pay rates for 2400 different principal positions in the state. That’s thanks to more than 20 years of piecemeal school-based administrator compensation legislation.

Principals are paid a base salary built upon years of experience, number of employees supervised, and highest degree earned. Some school districts like Wake County Public School System, also offer supplemental pay that is a percentage of the base.

The four-pronged approach is a first step to come up with a bill that could be passed in the long session of the General Assembly next year. The change would probably be incorporated into the biennial budget plan similar to the way teacher compensation packages have been adjusted in recent years.

This open negotiation format is intended to attract the best talent to lead the state’s public schools, but it is a measure that has many pitfalls. For starters, it would create competition between school districts for top principals.

The better option for all districts is to pay principals and assistant principals similar to the way the private sector values senior directors and executives. School-based administrator salaries shouldn’t be decided by an open negotiation. Instead they should be set within a negotiable range the way the private sector pays its employees. WCPSS already uses this model for its central office administrators and directors. Those positions are paid based on the salary rates in the competitive marketplace.

By doing this, a competitive salary in Raleigh will be different than a competitive salary in Surry County. Principals in both places would have a proper standard of living for the region where the school is located.

The hiring range model will also allow superintendents to put more resources in harder-to-staff schools. Those principals could be paid more for taking on schools with more demands on school leadership.

If North Carolina is serious about treating its educators like professionals, then its compensation packages should reflect that. Allowing principals and assistant principals some room to negotiate based on education and experience honors their professional expertise.

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