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Back To School: A matter of principals

Pay and hours making them harder to come by

Sunday, August 22, 1999

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This is the first of an eight-part series looking at issues in education as millions of students nationwide prepare to head back to school. Included in the series will be a look at Catholic schools admitting non-Catholics, reasons high school freshmen have the highest dropout rate, the safety amenities being built into new schools, the Rubik's Cube of scheduling, character-based education, techniques to sell science education and drug education in schools.

Ten years ago, Northgate Superintendent James Manley could expect to wade through as many as 100 resumes after he posted an opening for a building-level administrator.

Charles Gorman, director of the School Leadership Collaborative at the University of Pittsburgh, works with a foursome at a training session for educators who want to become principals. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

When he put out the word the district was looking for an assistant high school principal two years ago, however, Manley received 20 applications. Making matters worse, about five of the candidates were actually qualified for the job.

Compare that with the 300 resumes he has on file for elementary teaching positions. "And we're not even advertising," he said.

Northgate, it turns out, should have considered itself lucky.

Jim Duncan, assistant superintendent for the Connellsville Area School District in Fayette County, found 10 applicants this summer when he advertised an opening for a junior high principal. He had waged an aggressive monthlong search that included ads in newspapers and professional bulletins and contact with local universities.

"I don't know; maybe money has something to do with it," Duncan said. The salary for the job is $62,900. "Though we're competitive, we're by no means at the top. Other districts can certainly provide more monetary incentive."

Jesse King, a former superintendent in Fort Cherry School District, accepted the job last month.

But across the nation, good school principals have never been harder to find, regardless of pay, size of district or location.

About half of school districts nationwide reported a shortage of qualified candidates for vacant principals' positions, according to a recent survey by Educational Research Service.

And while the vacancies are harder to fill for many reasons but primarily due to comparatively low salaries and the extra work a principal does compared with teachers, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

    Back to School

Good principals need a wide array of skills


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in the number of school administrator jobs through 2005, primarily because of retirements. The National Association of Elementary School Principals alone estimates that more than 40 percent of elementary school principals will retire or quit over the next decade.

The news is particularly bad for smaller, rural districts that can't afford the high salaries commanded at large suburban schools.

"It's extreme -- critical even," said Curtis Rose, assistant director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "Some districts can't even find one applicant for an opening. It's definitely a seller's market."

The shortage comes at a time when the role of principal has taken on greater importance.

"Time and time again in the literature we see the impact a principal has in terms of creating an effective school, for establishing the learning environment and setting the educational direction of the school," said Dick Flanary, director of the office of leadership development and assessment for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "The principalship impacts lots of children's lives."


This is the first article in an eight-part PG series examining a range of educational issues.

Link to other parts of the series:

Part II: Non-Catholic families are finding Catholic schools a blessing

Part III: Ninth grade proves to be a pivotal year for youths

Part IV: Building good character through just a trait a week

Part V: Science classes trade textbooks for a hands-on approach

Part VI: D.A.R.E. is easy and free, but does it really work?

Part VII: Scheduling can be a monumental task

Part VIII: Smaller schools are safer schools, experts say


Cathleen Cubelic, who served as assistant elementary/middle school principal at Chartiers Valley during 1997-98, sees another problem with the scant supply of principals.

"It's really difficult for teachers to get acclimated to a new administration each year," she said, "because each has its own tone and certain style of management. ... It's hard to keep the system growing when the management keeps changing."

It's not as if educators don't have the credentials. In Pennsylvania, 5,242 people earned elementary or secondary principal certificates between 1995 and 1999. That's 26 percent more than the number of certificates issued between 1989 and 1994.

What's turning people away from the job?

For many would-be administrators, it often boils down to money -- not enough of it, that is.

Even though the average secondary school principal in Pennsylvania made $72,772 in 1998-99 compared with the classroom teacher's average salary of $48,457, the differential is actually much smaller when the number of hours a principal must work is considered.

"People forget they are there from 7 in the morning to 7 at night," said Thomas Shivetts, executive director of the Pennsylvania Associations of Elementary and Secondary School Principals.

Principals also are expected to attend school board meetings, spend weekend and evening hours at athletic events, show up at plays and dances, go to PTA meetings, and, because of a substitute teacher shortage, occasionally help in the classroom.

The gap narrows even further when the amount top scale teachers can earn is factored in. In some districts in the Pittsburgh area, veteran teachers, from whose ranks principals are usually drawn, are taking home more than $60,000 a year. Supplemental contracts for coaching or extracurricular activities can add thousands more.

And there is no two-month summer vacation for principals. While teachers, on average, work 180 days per year in Pennsylvania, administrators typically put in 240 days of work, according to PAESSP.

While a too-small paycheck for too-long hours may be at the root of the problem, it isn't the only thing dissuading teachers from pursuing their principals' certificates or making use of the ones they've already earned.

Some, like Chartiers Valley High School social studies teacher Bob Rodrigues, a 30-year veteran, opt to stay in the classroom because they feel that's where they will best affect students on a day-to-day basis.

Rodrigues earned his principal certificate in 1982 because, "It's almost like a rite of passage .... If you're worth your salt, you're expected to become a principal."

Early on, however, he determined that he could make much more of an impact in front of the blackboard than from an administrator's office. "It's the teacher who ignites the change," he said.

Administrators, on the other hand, are inundated with details of what it takes to run a school.

"There's no doubt in my mind that once you leave the classroom and you get away from the source of action, the memory wanes."

Other teachers forgo jobs in administration because of the growing amount of responsibility, aggravation and stress that comes with the job.

"Schools are asked more and more to take on responsibilities that in the past have gone to the community, parents and churches," Flanary said.

Consequently, a principal is not only expected to be a building's educational leader; increasingly, he or she also must serve as a public relations and fund-raising specialist, disciplinarian, counselor, supervisor, fiscal manager and, occasionally, social services agent.

In the aftermath of the Colorado and Georgia school shootings, some principals have been forced to take on the role of policeman, worrying about bomb threats and weapons. Lawsuits and school politics, too, have become overriding concerns.

"There are so many more societal issues today in schools, and parental support is not as strong as it used to be," Northgate's Manley said. "Years ago when you called parents, they would do anything to work with you. But today ... they're always questioning authority, and that's very troubling. You feel very much alone."

School districts may be partly to blame for the current scarcity of building-level administrators. Despite the known shortage of prospective employees, one-fourth of the surveyed districts had a "grow your own" program aimed at recruiting and preparing candidates from among current staff members, according to ERS.

Then there's the trend toward standards-based accountability.

Flanary said some teachers might fear that they'll lose their jobs because of a school's performance on test scores.

"Teachers say, 'Why do I want all those headaches when the pay differential doesn't justify?' " said Highlands Superintendent Louis Baldassare, who received fewer than 20 applications for an assistant principal vacancy this summer, far fewer than the 40 or so he expected.

Cathleen Cubelic, who worked for seven years as an elementary teacher at North Allegheny before taking the principal's job at Chartiers Valley, was always changing gears.

One minute she might be handling transportation issues or dealing with the teachers association, and the next, she could be placating an irate parent or counseling a staff member who, because of personal issues, wasn't functioning properly in the classroom.

"You're wearing 100 different hats," she said.

One of the most frustrating parts of the job, she said, besides learning how to make decisions not everyone would be happy with and being split between two buildings, was dealing with the mountain of paperwork and innumerable parent meetings generated by special education mandates.

Necessary, to be sure, but, "I felt like I was being pulled in 100 different directions," she said. "At the end of the day, I'd ask myself: 'What did I accomplish? Did I do more or create more work to do tomorrow?' I always felt like I was behind the eight ball."

Like many new principals, Cubelic was dismayed by the lack of mentoring. New teachers routinely are assigned peer mentors, but as a principal, "There was no time allotted for development," she said.

After a year on the job, Cubelic gave up the post and returned to her teaching job at North Allegheny.

"It's not that I didn't like it -- I loved it," she said. "But there were a lot of circumstances that just made it too difficult," including the many demands on her time for meetings and evening programs and the fact that she didn't have her own building.

She does, however, plan on trying administration again.

One of the reasons she earned her principal's certificate in 1992, she said, was because she wanted to have a bigger impact on education.

"As an administrator, you get to implement programs, fine tune them and see them grow," she said. "And there's an interaction with the parents and community you just don't see in the classroom."

That's good news to school superintendents such as James Manley.

"The principal touches the lives of so many young people at a critical time in their development," Manley said. "As the building's leader, you really can have a dramatic impact on students as they prepare for college or jobs."

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