Principal Pay in North Carolina

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 teachers and staff; they manage an operating budget averaging $5 million, and they serve as the glue between the school and its surrounding community. And yet, for years, North Carolina ranked near the bottom nationally in principal pay. So, over the last three years, North Carolina invested substantially in principal salaries - while also transforming the way principals are paid.

Pre-2017: An Outdated and Uncompetitive Principal Pay Plan

For years, principals in North Carolina had the lowest pay in the southeast; and among the lowest in the country. And – like most other states – the North Carolina paid principals based on school size, their level of education, and years of experience; with little accounting for the difficultly of the job or their effectiveness in their role.

This system rewarded principals for moving to larger schools and lacked a strategy to incentivize  high-quality principals to work in to our highest-needs schools. Both the structure and level of principal compensation needed to be improved.

In 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly established the Joint Legislative Study Committee on School-Based Administrators’ Pay. In its final report, the Committee stated:

In order to ensure that the State of North Carolina continues to attract and retain the best principals and assistant principals, it is important to provide a common-sense, straightforward system of pay that is competitive with other states and that rewards and incentivizes exceptional school leadership.

How did North Carolina transform principal pay?

Beginning in 2017, the North Carolina legislature restructured the salary schedule for principals to create what may be the most innovative and student-focused salary schedule in the country. This transformation was made possible by a $55 million investment in principal pay across three years. The updated schedule is based on the size of a school’s student population and the growth status of the schools the principal has led – based on the previous three years of growth data.

Average principal pay (12-month contract) has moved from around $76,000 in 2016-17 to around $95,000 for the 2019-20 school year, with the lowest pay tier now dramatically higher than pre-2017. This reflects significant progress for North Carolina’s school leaders and places our state at #3 in the Southeast for principal pay.

In 2019, North Carolina created an additional incentive for highly effective school leaders to bring their talents to the most challenging positions in their school districts. With an annual recurring investment of $1.3 million, principals who have persistently achieved high growth in their schools can receive a $30,000 annual salary supplement to move to a low-performing school for up to three years (up to a $90,000 total supplement).

North Carolina Principal Salary Schedule (2020-21)

Principals are also eligible for a stackable bonus based on their school-level growth scores – with double bonuses available for principals in high-growth schools that have received a “D” or “F” performance grade in the previous year.

Another illustration of how this transformed principal pay schedule works:

What’s next? Additional Recommendations for Improving Principal Pay

Thanks to three years of sustained increases in principal pay, North Carolina now ranks approximately 3rd in the Southeast for principal pay. Continued investment is necessary to ensure we are competitive with surrounding states, particularly Virginia and Georgia, which have higher average compensation for principals.

Additionally, the new pay structure fails to recognize the varying challenges and demands principals face within and across schools.  BEST NC recommends embedding a school complexity measure in the current pay structure to ensure we are consistently rewarding our best principals for taking on the highest-need schools.

To learn more about the roles and responsibilities North Carolina’s principals have, watch this short video.

Wake Forest University held their annual Distinguished Alumni Banquet in the Sutton Center on campus on 4/21/17.

“In the private sector, executives are paid a competitive salary based on their level of responsibility and the difficulty of their job. In addition, strong executives are given incentives for delivering results – to keep those high- performers where they can have the greatest impact. Make no mistake about it. market economics matter. Talent will go where it is compensated for delivering measurable improvement in performance. The Senate’s proposal takes the best lessons from these models, providing a strong and strategic base alongside bonus opportunities. It is an important pairing of substantial pay increases with an updated, professional compensation model. It is time for North Carolina to invest strategically in school leaders. There may be no more important investment we can make to positively transform education in our state.”

Don Flow, Chairman and CEO of Flow Automotive Companies & BEST NC Member