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The Davis County Board of Education is one step away from giving its principals up to $1,600 each year - on top of their regular salary - as performance pay.

"This is really plowing some new ground here," said assistant superintendent Stephen Ronnenkamp. "I hope everyone appreciates the significance of this."Indeed, this is one of the few inroads of public schools into something that private businesses have been using for years. The theory is to reward those principals that work harder and better than others, instead of paying them all the same based on an inflexible schedule.

Davis principals are paid between $47,500 and $59,500 per year. Elementary principals constitute the lower end of the scale, high school principals the higher end.

The board is slated to vote on the program in its next meeting Tuesday.

If the incentive system goes through, and it probably will, principals would get the money by selecting and carrying out various programs from a menu given them by the district.

Some of the menu items: increasing parent involvement, pursuing grant money, developing community councils, and improving instruction.

There has been some grumbling among teachers that some of the menu items, such as implementing student education plans, are really in the realm of teacher responsibility and that principals would therefore be paid simply for cracking the whip.

They also say other menu items, such as monitoring student performance, are things principals should be doing anyway.

Board member Barbara Smith expressed a different concern: that after a while the incentive pay would become simply routine.

"I hope this doesn't become a given and we aren't rewarding mediocrity," she said.

The program could also get expensive. If principals in all 69 Davis schools applied for and received the maximum amount, that would be $110,400 out of district coffers.

"I wonder where that amount of money is coming from," said Davis Education Association president Kalyn Denny.

But board president Dan Eastman, a well-known Bountiful businessman, is very high on the program. Merit pay rewards those who should be rewarded, he says, and lights a fire under the slackers.

"The business community has been after this for a long time," he said. "It works."

In fact, Eastman and other school officials would like to apply it to teachers as well.

"We have teachers out there that do excellent work and some that do outstanding work, and they all get paid the same," Eastman said.

Teacher unions have traditionally opposed merit pay as hard to measure and implement. One teacher's students may have lesser abilities and less advantaged backgrounds than another's, so the first teacher would be penalized even if she was the better teacher.

Unions also say merit pay is divisive, making teachers compete rather than cooperate and taking away energy that teachers could be spending on students.

"There's a lot of evidence within our school system that students benefit with collaboration," Denny said. "Teachers learn more from other teachers that they've been working with than they learned in college."

Ironically, all Utah teachers have a performance pay system of sorts in the state-funded career ladder program, which gives teachers extra money for working career ladder days and working on projects or committees.

Principals are not included in that program.

But teachers and administrators alike distinguish career ladder funds from the proposed principal performance pay. The amount of money involved is usually smaller, they say, and it has become pretty much routine for the majority of teachers. As a state program it resembles more a series of grant applications than part of a salary.

As for the principal performance pay, all Davis superintendent Richard Kendell can say is: It's about time.

"For principals we're talking about a 60-hour-a-week commitment, minimum," he said. "They work hard."