Moving On

Lucrative early-retirement packages are luring thousands of principals from their jobs

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When he is not happily perched atop his tractor on his 50-acre farm in Gaston County, N.C., where he says it takes him three days to mow the grass, Eugene Hanna spends his days pruning the greens in his garden or reading the daily news. He is an immeasurable distance from the bustle of Cramerton Elementary School, where he served as the principal for the past 15 years. Last year, though, the 61-year-old former baseball coach says, he decided it was time “to put it over to the next generation.”

Hanna is part of a wave of older principals across the country who are leaving the profession in record numbers. The National Association of Secondary School Principals estimates that one-fourth of the nation's 76,000 principal posts have turned over due to retirement in the last five years.

Simple attrition, the increased demands of the job, and—most tempting of all—lucrative retirement packages offered by budget-minded school districts have combined to precipitate a virtual exodus of retirees in the last five years.

But the massive turnover is causing havoc in many school systems. A number are scrambling to fill vacancies, and many schools have been left without a leader. “Last year was hellacious,” says Carol Genera, principal of Bromwell Elementary in Denver, where 26 of the city's 111 principals retired last June, marking the highest rate of turnover in the state in one year. “It was a total upheaval, a devastating change.”

Although figures are hard to come by, experts estimate that districts save hundreds of thousands of dollars by offering incentives to persuade their higher-wage earners to take an easy exit. “A lot of schools are offering early-retirement packages so they can get younger [people] for half the price,” says Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.

Last year, 186 New York City principals with 30 years of experience or more took advantage of an early-retirement incentive, a three-year credit to their pensions. “We got severely hit with budget cuts and this was a money saver,” says Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for the New York City Public Schools. The city also cut 2,000 teaching jobs through an early-retirement package.

“The sense of frustration, coupled with the benefits package, encouraged principals to leave in droves last year,” says Jimmy Warren, president of the New York High School Principals Association. Due to a slow approval process, less than half the positions were filled by the start of school last year. “It's a problem for students,” Warren says, “because there is a void in leadership.”

Still, many school systems, attentive to the diversity of school populations, see the rash of job openings as an opportunity to hire minorities and women to leadership positions. “What we've had is traditional white male principals who haven't felt the need to keep up with the changes in the country in terms of the opportunity for students to see themselves reflected in the leadership in schools,” says Milli Blackman, director of Harvard University's National Principals Center. “This is an exciting window of opportunity. I am not saying the retirees didn't make a contribution, but it's time for a new face on the scene.”

So far, women have made notable headway into the principals' ranks in many places. But districts are discovering it isn't easy to find minority candidates to fill their openings. One problem is that the pool of qualified minority educators is shrinking. In North Carolina, for example, the percentage of teachers who are black declined from 21 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 1991. Many prospective minority teachers are lured by better-paying jobs in the private sector or are reluctant to enter a system that is undergoing dramatic changes.

Some school systems have hired headhunters to help them scout. Mark Masterson, assistant superintendent of schools in Plastow, N.H., has scoured conferences, quizzed university professors for referrals, and contacted placement centers in an aggressive effort to integrate the faculty of his schools.

While the early-retirement incentives have pulled many principals from their jobs, others concede that they are exiting because the professional pressures have become too much to bear. “Administrators are caught in the middle between the expectations of the community, the teaching staff, the state, and the school board,” says Ann Dorr, a former principal at several Los Angeles schools. “Somewhere in the middle is a frustrated administrator trying to please everyone.”

And, she adds, “the personal problems of students, whether they are gang related or drug related, are making the administrator's role increasingly difficult to perform.”

Warren of New York City recalls the days when principals ran schools in collaboration with parents. “Now,” he says, “procedures are established downtown, and principals' creativity is compromised.”

But for some, like Ronald Makowski, who did not return to Sabin Elementary School in Denver this year, the offer to get out early was a mixed blessing. “If they hadn't offered the package, I would have stayed,” says Makowski, who confesses that he misses the students already. “I feel kind of frustrated because there are still things I'd like to contribute to the system.”

Vol. 04, Issue 03, Pages 17, 31

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