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Will NC Legislators Protect Experienced Principals From Cuts Under New Pay Scale?

Principal Denita Dowell-Reavis stands in front of the doors to Faith Elementary, a school in Rowan County.
Liz Schlemmer
Denita Dowell-Reavis helped lead her school from a C to a B score, but the elimination of bonuses for longevity and advanced degrees mean she still faces a pay cut under the new performance-based principal pay scale.

This is Denita Dowell-Reavis’ second year as a principal at Faith Elementary, a public school in the small town of Faith, in Rowan County. She worked hard last year. While finishing her doctorate degree in educational leadership, she helped her school exceed its expected test scores.“We were able to move our school score, as based by state testing, from a C to a B so we had a celebration about that,” Dowell-Reavis said.


And that’s exactly what lawmakers are hoping to reward with the new principal pay scale. North Carolinaranked last in the nation for average principal salary last year.


The General Assembly in its most recent budget overhauled how school principals across North Carolina are paid. The plan switches from a model based on experience to one based on school improvement as measured in test scores. The budget added $35 million to the state coffers for principal pay this year, but other changes have some principals worried.


Dowell-Reavis was excited to hear the new state budget would raise the base pay for principals across the state by almost $10,000 to $61,751. Last year, Dowell-Reavis was already making just a few thousand dollars more than this year’s new base pay, but she had also been expecting a raise for completing her doctorate. When the budget came out, she says she was blindsided.


“That’s when I realized they had decided to cut the doctoral pay, and I had just walked and graduated in the spring, so it was sort of a little punch in the gut to realize that, ‘Oh you’re not going to get paid for that extra work you did’,” she said.


Principal Denita Dowell-Reavis kneels to talk to a student about his homework in a classroom.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC
Principal Denita Dowell-Reavis drops in on a class to observe a lesson and check in with students.

Legislators would no longer reward advanced degrees or longevity. They had rewritten the pay scale to prioritize school growth on standardized tests. But, Dowell-Reavis wasn’t going to get bonuses for the improvement in her students’ scores, because she’d need two full years at her school to get credit for its growth. Under this system, she would make $900 more a month if she’d kept her old job as an assistant principal.

“When they’re working on legislation, I know it’s always messy and they probably couldn’t have anticipated all the possible scenarios, but it’s kind of like a triple whammy at once,” Dowell-Reavis said.


Performace-Based Pay Meant To Help Improve Student Growth, Legislators Say


Representative Hugh Blackwell (R-Valdese) co-chaired the committee that recommended the changes to principals’ salaries. He pushed for the performance-based pay and rise in minimum salaries, but he says he doesn’t want to see any principals lose income.


The salaries of about 15 percent of North Carolina’s principals – mostly veterans who would lose longevity pay – are being protected under a so-called “hold harmless” clause set to expire in June. Dowell-Reavis is one of 350 principals who is being held harmless, which means she will see no loss in pay this year. Blackwell would like to see those protections extended.


“Only holding them harmless for one year is too short a period of time because what we want them to do is up their game,” Blackwell said. “And some of them, many of them, maybe most of them are in situations in which upping your game after all these years may not happen overnight.”


Blackwell calls the old pay scale, with steadily rising steps for each year of experience, status quo.


“What we need in leadership is that they need to be willing to make changes until we get the success that the students need. Now, somebody needs to do something differently, and the principals are in charge of their schools,” Blackwell said.


Several states and cities have also moved to performance-based pay. In 2011, Florida did a similar overhaul of its pay schedule for teachers and principals. That law grandfathered in employees who had long been paid on an experience-based scale.


Blackwell says having only a one-year protection on the books in North Carolina raises concerns that veteran principals will retire early after facing potentially large cuts.


“It won’t be long until we are over halfway through this school year, and superintendents and school boards and principals are all making decisions and planning for the next school year,” said, Blackwell, adding that some principals’ contracts require them to give 6 months notice before they retire. That window is closing fast, and he says it gives the issue a sense of urgency.


Some Counties Make Up The Difference In Principals' Salaries


Principals are paid in part by their state-funded base pay, with local supplements from county funds. That means counties may bear the burden of upholding veteran principals’ salaries, if local districts want to maintain salary schedules similar to the one the state did away with. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is doing that this year. The district’s budget director Kerry Crutchfield says despite the rise in state base pay, the district paid about the same in its local supplement as last year to maintain its system of compensation. In that county, three principals face potential salary cuts of more than $1,000 a month.


But it’s still too early to know how legislators may tweak the pay scale for the future. Katherine Joyce, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, says she’s had a hard time trying to convince principals to remain calm.


“From my experience in working in the General Assembly, and I’ve worked there in advocacy since 1998, hold harmless provisions are often limited to one year only. It’s just a typical budget writing procedure,” Joyce explained.


At 48 years old, Dowell-Reavis isn’t considering retirement. She says she’d just like to pay her bills on time, and get something back for what she recently paid in tuition. She believes her education and experience do make her a better principal.


“When you work really hard and you know you bring your heart to school every day to try to help kids, it just would be nice for somebody to tip their hat to that,” she said.


Dowell-Reavis says despite her fears for her own salary, and those of her more experienced colleagues, she appreciates that the legislature is trying to give principals raises. That’s a sentiment being repeated across the state by other principals, school finance officers and members of the State Board of Education.


The State Board of Education in early October unanimously voted to communicate to the General Assembly the board’s gratitude for additional funding for principal pay -- a total of $35 million more this year and $40 million next year – and to ask that the hold harmless protection for principals be extended.


Legislators are expected to revisit the principal pay issue when they return in January.


Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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