Raising and Transforming Principal Pay: North Carolina Leading the Nation

July 2017

By Julie Kowal, VP of Policy & Research, BEST NC

Amid a flurry of budget negotiations, a gubernatorial veto and the subsequent legislative veto override this summer, it’s been easy to get caught up in the partisan analysis of North Carolina’s latest $22B state budget. Like any budget – or any 438-page document, for that matter – it is a complex list of competing priorities, with parts both to like and to criticize.

Hidden amongst the noise from all sides, one of the most impactful and nation-leading elements of this year’s budget is also one of its most underreported. The state budget makes North Carolina a national leader in school leader pay, by investing much-needed pay increases in an innovative, strategic salary schedule for principals.

State investments in school leaders have been one of BEST NC’s top priorities since our founding. As business leaders, our members know the value of great leadership. We believe 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 $5M, and they serve as the glue between the school and its surrounding community.

And yet, despite all of this responsibility, North Carolina’s average principal pay of $78,000 ranked us last in the southeast last year – and near the bottom of the pack in the nation. Over the past decade, principals’ average salary in North Carolina decreased by 20% (adjusted for inflation).

Not only is principal pay too low, but for years North Carolina – like other states – has paid school leaders based on school size, along with their level of education and years of experience, with no accounting for the difficulty of the job or the principals’ effectiveness in their role. This structure and level of principals’ compensation have made recruitment and retention increasingly difficult, particularly in high-needs and smaller schools.

That is why BEST NC’s top legislative goal for this year was to build on the 2016 recommendation by the Legislative Study Committee on School-Based Administrator’s Pay “to make meaningful, sustained and strategic investments in school leader compensation.”

The legislature followed through. This year’s budget completely restructures the salary schedule for principals in what may be the most innovative and student-focused pay structure in the country. The 2017-18 budget also invests more than $40 million in principal pay raises over the next two years.

With this investment in a transformed salary schedule, we can expect principals in North Carolina to see an average 13% raise in one year, including bonuses. Many of our most effective principals will see pay increases of $20,000 or more. These principals truly deserve to be celebrated for their contributions to the future of North Carolina.

Is it enough? Absolutely not. By our estimates, additional investments of $20-30M over the next few years will be necessary to align average principal pay with that of neighboring states and to adequately compensate principals for the high levels of skill and responsibility their job entails.

Nonetheless, North Carolina will offer most principals a sizeable raise this year, built on a strategic, nation-leading foundation. Our hope is that it will improve recruitment and retention, encouraging our best principals to serve and stay in the schools where they are having such an important impact on students’ lives.

In schools, as in every industry, great leaders are a critical investment. Regardless of where a person might stand on NC’s overall budget, the significant and strategic salary increases for school principals are one piece to celebrate – for the future of our schools, our economy, and most importantly, our students.