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Published in Print: March 26, 2003, as Challenges Will Help Decide Principals' Pay

Challenges Will Help Decide Principals' Pay

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The tougher the job, the higher the pay. That's the new rule of thumb for principals' salaries in Palm Beach County, Fla.

A new compensation system slated to be phased in next month promises fatter paychecks to principals at bigger schools and at schools serving larger concentrations of students living in poverty. The aim is to give the most challenging schools a better shot at attracting and keeping strong administrators.

"If you don't have your highest-performing principals in your highest-need schools, then you're just exacerbating the problem," said Arthur C. Johnson, the superintendent of the 161,000-student district.

The result of 18 months of meetings among school administrators, the new pay scale comes as more states and districts are giving principals financial rewards if their schools raise student achievement.

Few, though, have introduced significant incentives for principals to take on their districts' hardest assignments. Along with Palm Beach County, one notable exception is New York City, where Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein has proposed paying annual bonuses of $25,000 to proven principals who agree to help turn around low-performing schools.

"Everyone should be thinking this way," said Joseph F. Murphy, an expert on school leadership at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. "When the school is in a tough situation, the leadership issues are even more critical than when things are all moving along reasonably well."

Grade- Level Equity

Sprawling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Everglades, Palm Beach County is a district of striking contrasts.

"I have some of the most affluent, high-socioeconomic communities you'll find anywhere," Mr. Johnson said. "And I have schools in migrant communities that are in destitute poverty."

Until now, though, the characteristics of a school's student population had no bearing on how much its principal got paid. Instead, the salaries of school leaders have been based almost exclusively on their years of experience.

Under the new plan, principals will earn up to 20 percent above the district's base pay of $76,000, depending on three factors meant to reflect their schools' complexity: the overall size of enrollment, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the number of extracurricular activities offered.

The same basic formula also will determine salaries of assistant principals.

By tailoring administrator pay to the conditions at each school, the new scale also seeks to address a long- standing discrepancy between salaries at the elementary and secondary levels.

Like most districts, Palm Beach County has traditionally paid more to high school principals, on the assumption that their jobs are more demanding. And yet, some of its elementary schools now enroll more than 1,400 students, while a few high schools that focus on specific themes have fewer than 600.

Although school level plays a part in the new pay plan, the scale does allow for some principals at large elementary schools to earn more than their counterparts in small high schools.

"There is probably more equity in this than we had before," said Walter H. Pierce, a retired Palm Beach County principal who helped design the new salary schedule. "This profiles your school, so what could be more fair than that?"

Along with the incentives based on school population, principals will be able to increase their salaries by as much as another 15 percent if they meet certain performance targets, such as raising their schools' test scores. Florida state lawmakers recently passed legislation requiring districts to tie at least 5 percent of an administrator's pay to student performance.

In Palm Beach County, the maximum total principal's salary under the new plan will be about $124,700 a year. District officials peg the price tag of the incentives at $1.9 million, by the time they're fully phased in after three years.

While some principals will see hefty pay hikes as a result of the change, Mr. Pierce pointed out that others who are already near the top of the scale could see their salaries frozen temporarily if they work at small schools in affluent areas.

He added that he's already getting calls from principals asking how much they'd make if they moved to a more challenging school. "They're really looking at their jobs, and at the system differently than they did before," he said. "And I don't think that's a bad thing."

A Tough Sell

The new pay scale is only the latest effort by Palm Beach County officials to strengthen staff quality at the district's lowest-performing schools. Last summer, the district offered $10,000 bonuses to a select group of teachers who had demonstrated their ability to raise student test scores, in exchange for working in a school that had been rated a D or an F by Florida's accountability system.

About 20 teachers who were eligible for the awards and already in such schools have stayed, but only 10 agreed to move from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing one, showing just how hard it is to encourage the best educators to take on the greatest challenges.

District leaders hope that if more talented principals move to their lowest-rated schools, more teachers will follow.

Nathan Collins, the principal of Palm Beach Lakes Community High School, agrees that some schools are just more complicated to work in than others.

About 60 percent of his students live in poverty, he says, and many arrive for 9th grade with the reading skills of a 3rd or 4th grader. Because Florida tests students in grade 10, they have less than two years to catch up.

"We have some very good principals in Palm Beach," Mr. Collins said. "And I think more of them would work in the more challenging schools with a little incentive."

Vol. 22, Issue 28, Page 3

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