Based on our students' success on the state's mastery tests, our school was awarded $85,000. It might be hard to believe, but I consider that money to be both a blessing and a curse: Have you ever tried to involve 80 people in deciding how to spend that kind of money?
Some states provide a pool of money to be divided among schools that post successful results on their state mastery tests. Our state is one of those states, and our school received $85,000. For people in states that don't have this kind of system, it might be difficult to believe that I consider the money to be both a blessing and a curse. True, the money is wonderful recognition and a true gift -- and it comes with very few strings attached. But how does a principal involve 80 people in the process of deciding how to spend that money?
One possible solution -- one I felt pretty strongly about -- was that the staff deserved to share in the money. But who on the staff should receive bonuses, and how much should they receive? It seemed as though everyone had an opinion about "who works the most" or "who deserves it most." In fact, faculties in many other schools have come to tears, fights, and even departures over those issues.
When we began our discussions about the state money, my first desire was to be as open and as easy to work with as possible. Among the many ideas for spending the money was one that seemed to have considerable support: dividing the money among all staff members -- including custodians, teachers, cafeteria workers, aides, administration, and front office staff. There was not a consensus, however. Minor hard feelings were expressed about that idea, but the staff agreed to put it to a vote. I tried to offer words of encouragement for the proposal, because I felt it was the one most likely to be approved. I reminded the entire team of our school motto, which emphasizes that our success is really a team success based on a team effort. Our efforts benefit all our students, and we should all share in the rewards that result. Before the vote, I was careful to remind staff members that, if the majority voted in favor of equal bonuses, that vote would be the final outcome.
The results of the voting were close. The staff voted in favor of equal bonuses for all staff members by the smallest of margins, 51 to 49 percent. I worried that the results might cause some hard feelings, but the staff was fine with it. The vote was done fairly, everyone had a say, and the outcome was the outcome.
But it wasn't over yet...
The vote was not the final step. Once we reached agreement among the staff, we had to have the approval of the School Advisory Council (SAC). The SAC is made up of parents, teachers, local business people, and community representatives from all of the cultures represented in our school. The teachers on the SAC were in favor of approving the results of the faculty vote, but other SAC members brought up other issues. They thought the school needed equipment and supplies. "Why bonuses?" they asked.
The SAC had an overview of our school's needs. They knew what amounts had been allocated in the general budget to meet those needs. I suggested that the award money represented a very small portion of the money needed to meet the overall needs of the school.
I had to step in and try to make a solid case for the faculty vote, so I gave an overview of major businesses throughout the country. A large number of companies regularly dispense bonuses to employees for their hard work and dedication, I explained. I pointed out that the largest company in our area regularly pays out yearly bonuses based on profits -- bonuses that range from single digits to 25 percent of salary.
Finally, I brought out what I felt was my trump card. I presented an illustration to show that our teachers' pay was near the bottom of teacher salaries in the state and at the very bottom in our county. Our staff deserves a bonus as evidenced by their hard work and successful results -- a bonus just like that many businesses give, I told the advisory council. No teacher would get rich if the state money was divided among 80 people, but a SAC vote in favor of the proposal would be a vote of confidence in our hard-working staff.
The committee put to a vote the idea of equal bonuses for all staff. The vote was 100 percent for -- and 0 percent against -- the staff proposal. Everyone was relieved -- and we should be enjoying our bonuses within the next 2 weeks.
This process was a real learning experience for me, reminding me that I must do my "homework" and consider all possible perceptions and reactions when dealing with state bonus money. Before the two votes, I was able to go behind the scenes and discuss the idea with individual staff and SAC members. It was good to have a "heads up" before the votes, so I could be prepared to speak on the issues before they were brought up at the meetings. Everyone I talked with before the votes provided insight into what to expect, what arguments might come up, and what arguments I might make to bring about the desired result. I took all the concerns and generated a plan to present to staff members before their vote and to the SAC before its vote. I continually sounded the plea to remember "all things are possible as long as we work together." In the end, our staff remains solid because the process was done fairly and everyone had a say.
About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.