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Tenure or a Higher Salary --
Which Would You Take?

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Principals in New York City were offered $25,000 pay raises --- in exchange for concessions, including giving up tenure. Given such a choice, what would you do? Education World's "Principal Files" principals add their thoughts to the debate.

Principal Files LogoSeveral years ago, principals in New York City had an opportunity to consider an unusual contract offer -- a huge pay increase in exchange for giving up lifetime tenure.

In the city, firefighters, police, and sanitation workers had recently signed five-year contracts that awarded wage and benefit increases of 13.3 percent. The principals were offered the same package PLUS an additional wage increase of 20 percent -- for a total increase over five years of 33.3 percent! The raises for principals, termed "productivity increases," would average $18,000-20,000 above the raises for other city workers. For a high school principal earning top pay of $83,921, the raise would amount to more than $26,000, bringing total salary to $109,937 -- $111,867 with benefits.

This raise was offered by administration officials "out of determination to treat principals like professional managers and to hold them more strictly accountable for the success and failure of the city's 1.1 million school children." The sacrificed tenure would provide for the Chancellor of the city's schools the authority to demote or dismiss principals who are not performing, and to reward those who are. In other words, the Chancellor would enjoy the same powers that the head of any large corporation or a police precinct has. Education officials hoped the offer might stem the exodus of experienced principals to the suburbs while attracting fresh blood and top-quality leaders to its schools.

How did principals react? A small number of principals spoke up for the plan, but the president of the 4,400-member Council of Supervisors and Administrators denounced the offer as a union-busting tactic, an insulting offer akin to slavery. (The new contract would have increased the length of the workday and the school year for principals.)


If you were presented with a similar offer from school officials in your community, what would you do? Would you accept a substantial salary increase? Would you exchange tenure for the money? That's the question Education World posed to our Principal Files principals this month. The result was a lively discussion!

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For many principals, the thought of earning $100,000 or more per year elicits a hearty laugh.

"I know one thing for sure, I will not be faced with the situation you described," says Jack Burns, principal and chief administrator of South Pacific Academy in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

For others, such a situation might be closer at hand.

"In my city, there has been quite a lot of discussion regarding [five-year] contracts with large pay increases," reports Greg Robinson, principal at Ginninderra District High School in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory. "Our Chief Executive (head of the Department of Education) and most of the top public servants in the Australian public service now work under this system. I believe it is only a matter of time before principals, and other teachers for that matter, work under the five-year contract system."

"If a five-year contract was offered [to me], I would accept it," adds Robinson. "If after five years I wanted my job back I would apply along with others. If someone else was selected, so be it, as long as the process was fair."


Alan Seay, principal at Iowa Park (Texas) High School would take the money too. "I have no experience with tenure, however I do believe that school principals and teachers should be accountable for the performance of their schools," says Seay. "Principals in Texas are being evaluated partially on their schools' performance on our state-mandated test, the TAAS. I don't mind being held accountable for the performance of my students and would love to be compensated for my willingness to be accountable."

Others worry about this "accountable" business.

"I worked in the corporate sector for 18 years before becoming an educator, and the word accountability takes on a different air when it comes to educators," says Sylvia Hooker, principal at Central Middle School in Newnan, Georgia.

"Efforts to treat principals like professional managers and to hold them more strictly accountable for the success or failure of the school and students at the school is commendable," adds Jack Burns. "Yet, I wonder if accountability also includes the authority to get the job done."

"One major problem today is that principals are being held more and more accountable, but given less and less authority for accomplishing the task," says Burns. "They are told to bring up student performance but it must be done with both hands tied behind their backs"

Support from the school district's main office is essential to the success of any principal, says Dee Anna Manitzas, principal at Acclerated Middle School in San Antonio. "There are so many principals who have a great attitude about the job, but who lose that attitude because there is no support from above."

Manitzas gave up a 23-year teaching career -- with tenure -- to become a non-tenured administrator. She would welcome a salary adjustment. "For too many years our profession has been looked upon unfavorably by other professionals," she says.


"Changing the salary and expectations of principals so they are treated more like CEOs of large companies or banks would better reflect the nature of our work," says Ken Romaniuk, principal of the K-8 Ochre River (Manitoba, Canada) School. "Who can say that a principal is not a professional manager when we deal with budgets, fundraising, legal issues, medical issues, staffing, discipline, community needs?"

Romaniuk, whose current contract is renewed yearly based on his performance, has concerns about how principals would be held more accountable under such a system. "Would this lead to merit pay based on the school's performance? Would principals retain their positions if the schools perform well? Since money is involved, would expectations increase?"

Romaniuk sees some potential problems with such a system. "We must admit that not all schools are equal in regards to resources or even facilities. I am left wondering who would want to assume the responsibility for struggling schools if there is not tenure."


"I would probably say no [to the money]," says Tom Beckett, administrator at Westminster Primary School in Perth (Western Australia). For Beckett, money isn't everything. "Lifestyle and family play an important part in most principals' decisions [in Western Australia]," he adds.

"Principals in Western Australia were originally required to spend years in remote communities before they could get back to population centers," Beckett explains. "To encourage principals to take up positions in these remote areas they are using very good financial inducements, but still they can't fill the positions."

And what about commitment to a school and its students? Might some principals take non-tenured positions for the "instant gratification of extra money?," wonders another administrator, who chooses to remain anonymous. "[This could] lead to higher turnover rates because people would look to those positions as short-term moneymakers If schools are looking for highly qualified, professional people, they would pay the increased amount and continue to provide the tenure protection as well. That would be the professional thing to do."


"To me, the question is analogous to asking a drowning man if he'd rather have an anchor or an anvil," says Joe Lazarski, principal of Ray Middle School in Baldwinsville, New York. "The answer would be neither, since neither would be of any help."

"If the trouble with New York City schools is poor student achievement, it seems that whether principals are tenured or not, or make a lot of money or not, are both far removed from the problem," adds Lazarski. "Careful analysis and then a specific, concrete plan that would attack the problem would make more sense."

"Neither tenure nor extra money would make me change the way I already operate, [but] if I had to make the choice, I'd probably take the money," says Lazarski. "I've had tenure only three of the nine years I've been an administrator, so being untenured is a way of life for me but the extra money would pay for more Caribbean vacations than tenure would."

"I have always been a principal in the private setting, where there was no lifetime tenure, nor any real guarantee of a job in the future," says Lyn McCarty, former principal of Martins' Achievement School. "Personally, I would not stay with a job if I believed I was not fully invested in doing my very best and succeeding at a respectable level. I expect that my assignments are earned by my actions and I do not even like the idea that people assume I would feel better about the job 'knowing' I could not be discharged."

McCarty has returned to the public school setting as a classroom teacher, to refresh her connection to teaching while completing her administrative credential. She'll seek a principalship in a public school setting for next fall.

"Tenure is not something I seek or hold much value for," McCarty adds. "Also, I do not work just for the amount of money I can earn. So, would I choose tenure over money? I do not need tenure. I work hard and honestly. I need only enough money to take care of my needs and my future. It feels like a non-choice."

"I do think that professionalizing the leadership of a principal is critical to professionalizing the entire endeavor of schooling," McCarty concludes. "Holding principals accountable, not for the circumstances of their schools and students, but for what they choose to do with the raw materials they have in hand, is a must."


So, it seems from the reactions of Education World's "P-Files" principals that the strict interpretations of New York City's plan might be closer to being reality in Australia than it is in the United States. That doesn't mean that variations of such a plan don't exist everywhere. Indeed, more school districts will likely be forced to raise pay standards for principals -- as more principals retire, and as the number of qualified and willing replacements dwindles. It seems a given that salaries will increase to be more closely aligned with those of administrators in public corporations. With that increase in pay will likely come an increase in accountability.

Accountability, in some form, is already a reality in most schools. However, if principals are to be held "strictly" accountable -- if a plan such as the one introduced in New York City is to succeed -- school chiefs will need to provide for principals a network of support; and they will need to provide for students the tools and other materials to ensure success.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 02/11/1999
Last updated 05/25/2007