Not the Same: Principal, Assistant Principal Salaries Vary by Region, District Type

By Lora Wolff and Denny Barr

Disparity can be defined as a lack of similarity. Anyone who grew up watching “Sesame Street,” knows the song that was played regularly on the show. The lyrics went something like, “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things is not the same. Can you tell me which of these things is not like the others by the time I finish this song?” In examining the principal and assistant principal salaries in Illinois by district type (elementary, high school, and unit) and by region (East Central, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, and West Central), “disparity” sums up the situation across the state. 

During the 2017-2018 academic year, there were 3,560 full-time principals with 556 part-time principals (0.1-0.89 full-time equivalent or FTE) (see Table 1). To arrive at the most accurate comparisons, only the full-time principals were utilized for the data analysis. Additionally, the five principals from the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice were excluded from the analysis due to their specialized circumstance. 

In examining principal salaries from 2014 through 2018, the average salary increased each year as did the median salary (see Table 2). Average salary increased by just over $10,000 in the five-year period, and the median salary increase by $8,600. There was some fluctuation in the high salaries with 2017 having the highest principal salary of $238,007.

Looking at principal salaries by district type, unit districts, with 2,307, had the largest number of principals, followed by elementary district principals at 1,105 and high school district principals at 148 (see Table 3). The highest principal salary of $210,000 was earned by a unit district principal. However, and notably, unit district principals also had the lowest salary ($33,175), the lowest average salary ($106,916), and the lowest median salary ($95,410). High school principals had the highest average salary of $141,604 and the highest median salary of $143,356. 

Illinois regions as reported in this data indicate the more significant disparities (See Figure 1). The Northeast region reported 2,145 full-time principals with the five other regions ranging from 173 principals to 368 (see Table 4). That highest salary of $210,000 was earned by a Northeast region principal. The Northeast region also had the highest average, $121,772, and median, $121,062, salaries. The lowest average of $83,447 and lowest median of $83,000 were in the Southeast region. The difference from the highest to lowest average salary among regions was just over $38,000.

The study presents the salaries by district type (elementary, high school, and unit) and also breaks down the numbers by each region (see Table 5).

Elementary District Principal Salaries
A total of 1,105 principals work in elementary districts, with 82% located in the Northeast region. This distribution makes sense with the larger number of elementary districts in the Northeast region. The high salary of $187,899 and highest average salary of $114,561 were in the Northeast region. 

High School District Principal Salaries
The highest principal salary of $205,818 for the 112 reporting high school districts was also in the Northeast region; as was the highest average salary ($152,747) and highest median salary ($153,985). The lowest principal salary in high school districts was in the Southeast region, $111,647. The East Central region had the lowest average salary of $94,500 and lowest median of $94,041. It is important to note that when reviewing the high school districts’ salaries, five of the six regions had 11 or fewer full-time principals. 

Unit District Principal Salaries
A total of 2,307 principals worked full-time in unit districts with almost half of them serving in the Northeast region. The Northeast region had the high salary of $210,000, highest average salary of $124,509, and highest median salary of $127,327. There was a difference of over $89,000 from the largest high salary and the smallest high salary across the regions. The Southeast region had the lowest average salary of $82,397. The low principal salary for unit districts was in the West Central region ($33,175) with the lowest median salary ($77,080) in the East Central region. In examining the high, average, and median salaries a few generalizations can be made: Principals in the Northeast region had the high salaries, highest average salaries, and except for the elementary district principals, the highest median salary. The East Central region and the Southeast region had the lowest salaries in high salary, average salary, and median salary categories.

Assistant principals 
This is the first year that data for assistant principal salaries were analyzed. As depicted in Table 6, Illinois had 2,417 assistant principals during the 2017-2018 school year with 2,313 serving in a full-time capacity (FTE 0.90-1) with 204 part-time assistant principals (FTE 0.1-0.89).  In examining principals by district type (elementary, high school, and unit districts), the largest number of assistant principals, 1,395, served in unit districts (see Table 7). The highest salary of $197,071 for an assistant principal was noted in a high school district, as was the largest median salary of $112,000. The greatest difference between the highest salary and the average salary for full-time assistant principals was in high school districts ($130,050). 

The Northeast region, with 1,699 or 73%, had the largest number of assistant principals (see Table 8). The Northeast region had the high salary of $197,071, the highest average salary of $98,460, and the highest median salary of $95,509. The lowest average salary of $73,696 and the lowest median salary of $71,750 for full-time assistant principals were in the East Central region.  The final breakdown of the full-time assistant principal salaries was by type of district (elementary, high school or unit) and by region (see Table 9). 

Elementary District Assistant Principals by Region
The vast majority, 92%, of assistant principals in elementary districts were in the Northeast region. The highest salary of $152,670 was in the Northeast region, as was the highest average salary of $83,699. The highest median salary was in the Southeast region and was $83,600. 

High School District Assistant Principals by Region
The Northeast region reported 260, the largest number of assistant principals in high school districts. The Northeast also had the high salary of $197,071, the highest average salary of $128,398, and the highest mean salary of $132,362. The East Central region had the lowest average salary of $72,921, and the Southeast region had the lowest median salary of $73,992.

Unit District Assistant Principals by Region
The majority of unit district assistant principals were also in the Northeast region, which also had the high salary of $156,271, the highest average salary of $98,906, and the highest median salary of $101,854. The East Central region recorded the lowest average salary of $74,383 and the lowest median salary of $71,779. The high salary for unit district assistant principals from the Northeast was higher than the principals’ high salaries in the other five regions. In some cases, the high salary in the Northeast was $110,000 higher than in other regions and the median salary was over $58,000 higher than in other regions.

This brings us full circle to the “Sesame Street” song. The principal and assistant principal salaries in Illinois demonstrate disparity as defined: they are not similar. Geography plays a part, and other factors at play include cost of living, community norms for salaries, and years of experience of the principals and assistant principals among others. The data relating to these and other factors were not available to us and as such, those factors are out of the purview of this analysis. And yet, as we imagined folks reading this article, some probably thought of more modern lyrics by Kyle, “Not the same, we are not the same. Not the same, we are not the same!” 

Authors’ notes
From 1995 to 2007, researchers at Western Illinois University collected and compiled data on the salaries of district superintendents and principals in Illinois. The Illinois School Board Journal published a study of that voluntarily submitted data. With the introduction of mandatory reporting of administrator salaries, the data was unavailable for several years. In 2014, the Illinois State Board of Education made its data available to researchers. Since then, the series has resumed. The full series and resources associated with this article are available via the Journal resources page at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html. Thanks to Jackie Matthews, ISBE Director of Media and External Communications and ISBE’s data analysis division for providing the raw data. Thanks to Jordan Arndt and Karolyn Ericksen, graduate assistants at Western Illinois University, for sorting the data. ´Ç╝

Lora Wolff, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University and was previously superintendent for Keokuk Community Schools in Iowa. Denny Barr, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University and the graduate program coordinator for the M.S.Ed. in Educational Leadership and principal endorsement programs in the Educational Studies Department.