In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Principal Shortage
By Tim Pugmire
August 31, 1999
Part of MPR Online's Back to School '99 series.
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Minnesota schools are having an increasingly hard time hiring good principals. Superintendents say fewer people are applying for principal jobs, and many of those applicants lack the experience needed to meet the growing demands of the job. It's a nationwide trend that some predict is reaching crisis proportions.

THE STILLWATER SCHOOL DISTRICT has hired a retired principal from another district to lead its high school this year. The district launched a search when the position opened last spring, but only 10 people applied. Superintendent Kathleen Macy says she decided to hire an interim principal because none of the applicants was ready to manage a school the size of Stillwater Area High School, with 2,200 students and 150 teachers.
Macy: It's a small city. And to move someone into that position with no experience or very little experience would not necessarily be the wisest move. And as a result, I didn't feel that we had persons with enough experience or enough persons with the kind of experience we we're looking for to put a good pool together.
Macy says she'll post the job again in late fall, with hopes of selecting a permament replacement from a better pool of applicants by March. Stillwater's experience in not unique. School districts throughout the country know too well that good principals are increasingly hard to find. Bob Schmidt, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, says there's been a steep decline in the quantity and quality of applicants.
Schmidt: They're finding that in even in some of the large schools only five or six candidates applying for a position. And some of those candidates are not qualified for the job. Either lack of licensure or not adequate background experience, that type of thing.
And Schmidt says the shortage could get worse as more principals retire. He says by 2005, about three-quarters of the state's secondary principals will be eligible for retirement.

The two national organizations representing elementary and secondary principals randomly surveyed 403 school districts last year and about half reported a shortage of qualified candidates for principal vacancies. Those who do the hiring say long hours, high stress and low pay are big factors. Nationally, the average principal's salary is nearly $30,000 better than the average teacher's. But Bob Schmidt says the gap between a veteran teacher and a beginning principal isn't big enough.
Schmidt: Because right now, the spread is so small that teachers say "why would I want to work 12 months a year and 60 to 70 hours a week for very little increase in pay?" So we have to change that and it is being changed gradually particularly in the metropolitan area. Less so in the greater Minnesota area.
Schmidt says the dearth of candidates has pushed some smaller school districts to hire principals without proper licenses. He says his association strongly opposes the practice and is urging the state to withhold funding from schools that break the rules. But school districts in a bind for principals can get around the state's license requirements on a temporary basis.

Three weeks before the start of classes, officials with the Sauk Centre school district went to the state board of education requesting a waiver. They needed special permission to hire Belinda Selfors, who does not yet have her administrative license, as junior high school principal for the coming school year. Selfors worked fours years as an administrator in North Dakota, where she was fully licensed, but the requirements are stiffer in Minnesota. She says she'll be working on meeting those requirements over the next year.
Selfors: I've completed 15 of 30 credits at Saint Cloud State. And so I just have an internship, a few more courses and then the paperwork to go with the portfolio review. That will be completed next summer.
Dan Brooks is superintendent in Sauk Centre, a rural district of 1,200 students in Central Minnesota. He says he also hired another principal this summer with the expectation he'd finish his license work by the start of the school year. Brooks says it's an all too common scenario for small school districts.
Brooks: I think we've had a number of applications but many of them in the same status as Belinda, not quite done with their degree work or aspiring teachers looking to move into administration, etc. But a pool of candidates, fully licensed, especially with any experience is almost non-existent.
With good principals in such high demand, many school districts have taken steps to hang on to the ones they have. Experienced principals are getting raises and other incentives to stay put. Many administrators say they're also looking closer within their own teacher ranks for future leaders.
Lowenson: The best leadership is one that's developed, not discovered.
Dan Lowenson is the assistant to the superintendent in Minneapolis and in charge of hiring principals. The state's largest school district fills eight to 10 principal positions each year, and most of the candidates come from within the district. Lowenson says all school districts should take a similar "grow your own" approach.
Lowenson: You can't expect a school district to keep up with the public's demands for everything from safety to achievement on national and statewide tests without nurturing leadership that's capable of leading that way. So even if it's a small district in greater Minnesota that's looking for one principal a year, if that, not to wait until the vacancy occurs, but to be very proactive to make sure you have a pool large enough to get you exactly the match you need to be successful.
The Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals has also embraced a similar recruiting effort. The association launched a project two years ago aimed at pushing talented teachers into administration. Bob Schmidt says superintendents and principals have recommended 350 teachers so far to participate in special workshops. Five more sessions are planned this year. Schmidt says the association plans a study this year on how many past participants have actually moved on to principal jobs.
Average of salaries paid
elementary school principals in reporting school systems,
by geographic region, 1997-98.
*States included in georgraphic regions: New England: CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT; Mideast: DE, DC, MD, NJ, NY, PA; Southeast: AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA, WV; Great Lakes: IL, IN, MI, OH, WI; Plains; IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD; Southwest: AZ, NM, OK, TX; Rocky Mountains: CO, ID, MT, UT, WY; Far West: AK, CA, HI, NV, OR, WA.
Region* Amount Comparison to national average
New England $68,988 +6.7
Mideast $74,471 +15.2
Southeast $58,915 -8.9
Great Lakes $64,993 +0.5
Plains $60,105 -7.0
Southwest $56,006 -13.4
Rocky Mountains $54,280 -16.0
Far West $70,053 +8.4
Average all regions $64,653 -------