Are principal salaries keeping up with COVID’s challenges? Some say no

A rising sentiment among principals: 'Kids, parents, and staff need me, so I'm going to stay on.'

Pinpointing the trajectory of principals’ salaries as workloads have swelled during the pandemic is difficult to do on a national scale. But even if these salaries are simply keeping up with the rising cost of living, that’s not quite enough, says Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

A large majority of principals reported working harder, working longer hours, and having a more difficult time doing their job in a December NASSP survey that warned of a potential “mass exodus” of building leaders. “Principals should be paid more,” Nozoe says. “The pandemic has highlighted a lot of the stuff they’ve dealt with as they’ve taken on more responsibility than ever before. Their salaries have never been commensurate with other leaders or administrators in similar professions.”

Principals have long been accustomed to administrative management and instructional leadership but they added the roles of public health expert, crisis manager and mental health therapist for staff and students during the pandemic, Nozoe says. Principals are also having to cope with becoming the preferred target of parents and others who are angry about mask mandates, curricula and cultural issues, he adds.

Snapshots of current salary levels in a handful of states and large districts may offer a glimpse of trends nationwide. In Texas, wages have been rising steadily in recent years. The average principal salary was $97,657 in 2021-22, a slight increase from $95,965 in 2020-21 and $94,739 in 2019-20, according to Texas Education Agency data. The average was $85,262 in 2014-2015.

In Illinois, salary increases dropped slightly, from 2.6% to 1.8%, between 2018 and 2020. The decrease appears to have been caused by the retirements of more experienced principals who earned higher salaries, according to the Illinois Association of School Boards. About a third of the districts in the state were reporting administrator shortages in 2021.

In New York City schools, salaries range from $179,740 for a first-year elementary school principal to $191,372 for a high school principal with 15 years of longevity, according to data from the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators union. Building leaders at all levels have seen steady increases—for instance, that first-year elementary school principal earned $150,330 in 2019; the salary for a junior high school principal with five years of longevity grew from $162,705 in 2019 to $174,096 in 2021.

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In the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida, principals’ pay in 2021 ranged from about $98,000 to $140,000, with the potential to rise to around $167,000 based on certain performance measures. Across the state in Sarasota County Public Schools, principals’ salaries ranged from $94,598 to $127,527.

Based on recent conversations with principals, Nozoe says it appears some of the burnout and frustration principals were experiencing at the height of the pandemic may be easing. That may reduce the threat of a “mass exodus.”

“It’s bittersweet—bitter because of some of the working conditions principals have gone through, and sweet because we’re seeing the character of these folks,” Nozoe says. “They’re saying ‘If not us, then who?’ It’s ‘Kids, parents, and staff need me, so I’m going to stay on.'”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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