2012-2014 Salaries reported in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014

Administrator Salaries, Part II:
Salaries reflect regional disparities

By Lora Wolff and Dean Halverson


Lora Wolff is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Western Illinois University. Dean Halverson is a professor of educational leadership, also at Western.

The authors have a confession to make. We are both retired Iowa school administrators (one a superintendent and one an elementary principal). You might ask why this is significant and why we would even make a confession in The Illinois School Board Journal. First, we come to the topic of Illinois school administrator salaries with fresh eyes. We also come from a system where the pension is solid, although not nearly as lucrative. We come from a state with much lower average salaries, but in which retired educators also earn Social Security. Thus, when we examine data, we believe we can set aside our bias and opinions about Illinois’ financial woes, pension debate and cost shift, and differences in salaries and retirement systems. We need only to examine the data.

When we do that, the word disparity comes to mind.

An example: The highest-paid superintendent salary in Illinois for 2014-2015 was $336,350, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. The highest superintendent salary in Iowa, in a district with 33,200 students, was $260,000, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.

Why is there a significant difference? Take Chicago and its suburbs out of Illinois and you have two similar Midwestern states.

Illinois elementary and secondary administrators’ salaries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013), are similar to those in Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Excepting Minnesota and Illinois, these states are on the east and west coasts. Meanwhile, Iowa elementary and secondary administrators’ salaries are smaller, comparable to Nebraska, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Wyoming, and Nevada.

Table 1 shows data for Illinois and its five bordering states. The Illinois average salary is $5,000 more than in Wisconsin and over $11,000 greater than the next highest state, Missouri. The disparity is even higher when examining salaries at the 90th percentile: a difference of over $40,000 top to bottom.

The focus of this article is not administrator salaries across states. However, the comparison should put perspective on Illinois school administrator salaries.

Principal salaries

From 2012-2013 to 2013-2014, the number of elementary, middle school and high school principals with salaries reported remained stable (see Table 2). However, reported numbers were down from previous reports from 2007 and 2011. We caution readers against assuming that there was a significant decline in the number of principals; we can only say that fewer principals reported in 2012-13 and 2013-14. The gap in salaries (both high salary and average salary) between elementary, middle school and high school salaries closed during 2013-2014 with average salary increases at the elementary and high school levels.

Regional comparisons

In examining average elementary principals’ salaries (see Table 3), the lowest-paid principals, at $76,898, were in the southeast region of Illinois, with the highest average of $109,679 in the northeast region. The highest elementary salary of $192,275 was also in the northeast region. The lowest high salary for elementary principals was in the east central region, resulting in a gap over $81,000. Between the two years studied, there was an increase in salaries for elementary principals in four of five regions, with a decrease in average salaries (down 2.76 percent) in the east central region.

Middle school principals in the west central region had the lowest average salary, $80,048, with the highest of $110,332 in the northeast region, or a gap of over $30,000. Interestingly, the northeast, northwest and west central regions all reported a decrease in average salaries. In examining highest reported salary, the northeast region topped the list at $186,975, with lowest reported high salary in the east central, at $110,115. The gap in high salaries at the middle school level is over $76,000.

The northeast high school principals had both the highest average salary, $118,682, and the highest salary, $214,096. Southwest high school principals reported the lowest average salary, $83,810 and the lowest high salary, $130,243. The disparity in high salary is almost $89,000. Average salaries increased in the east central, northeast, and southwest regions (See Figure 1 for   regions listed by county).

Superintendent salaries

From 2012-2013 to 2013-2014, there was a decline in average superintendent salaries at both elementary district and high school district levels. Superintendents of unit school districts enjoyed a slight increase in average salary, but reported the lowest average salary, $120,066. Unit superintendents also had the lowest high salary, $297,700. High school superintendents reported the highest salary and largest average salary. When exploring high salaries there is a gap of approximately $39,000. A gap of over $43,000 is reported in average salaries (see Table 4).

Regional comparisons

The northeast region had the highest superintendent salaries of all three district configurations, along with highest average salaries (see Table 5). The southeast region had the lowest high salary for elementary and high school superintendents. The southwest region reported the lowest high salary for unit superintendents. The southwest region had lowest averages for elementary superintendents and high school superintendents with the southeast region reporting lowest average salary for unit superintendents.

Superintendent salaries show variance in fluctuation. The percentage of salary change for elementary superintendents ranged from -4.62 percent in the west central region to 9.16 percent in the southeast. For high school superintendents, salary change was even more disparate, ranging from -6.06 percent to 14.61 percent. The gap ranged from -5.95 percent to 7.45 percent for unit superintendents.

Other considerations

When looking at Illinois administrator salaries across the state, we note the following key points:

  • In recent years, there was an increase in salaries in all but one region for principals and superintendents at all three levels. This is not the case when analyzing 2012-13 and 2013-14 data.
  • The northeast region had declines in salary at both principal and superintendent levels (in five of six categories).
  • The southeast region had increases in salary at all three principal and superintendent levels.
  • As in previous years, the average salaries of elementary, middle school and high school principals are quite close, with a span of approximately $3000 with high school principals having the highest average salary.

Supply and demand is another concern. The additional demands of the new teacher evaluation system may deter those considering an administrative career. Furthermore, these demands may push veteran principals and superintendents to retire, which would affect administrator salaries as districts recruit replacements.

New Illinois admissions standards for those entering principal preparation programs, demands of the new internship experience (on principal candidates and mentor principals) and licensure requirements (TAP400 and two principal tests) may also serve as a deterrent for high-quality potential candidates. The numbers show that fewer potential principals are enrolling in principal preparation programs. In FY12 there were 2855 candidates entitled, this dwindled to 1731 in FY13 and declined even further based on projections from the first half of FY 14 (512 entitlements). Classroom teachers may not be willing to jump through the additional hoops of certification, for increased responsibilities of a school leader that include longer hours for not much more money.

With uncertainty surrounding the state’s retirement systems, it may become more difficult to recruit quality school leaders from out-of-state. As principals and superintendents retire at an increasing rate, it may be difficult to fill leadership positions. Illinois State University reported the need for new principals increased from 339 in 2010, to 410 in 2011 and 439 in 2012. This increasing trend is unlikely to change.

Conclusions and recommendations

The theme of this article is disparity in administrator salaries. In general, Illinois school administrators make more than do their counterparts in bordering states, a definite disparity. But more concerning is the disparity in principal and superintendent salaries within the state of Illinois. Yes, cost of living varies across the state, but that only goes so far in justifying the regional disparities in salaries.

A hard look at salaries across the state is in order. We’re reminded of what author Daniel Pink wrote in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table: Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work.”

The extreme salary disparities in Illinois need to be taken off the table so that school leaders throughout the state are thinking about the important work of student learning and not that their counterpart makes $90,000 more.

With the difficulty some regions have in attracting superintendents and principals, school boards might consider a “grow your own” superintendent and principal program. However, boards need to realize that the compensation package for “grow your own” leaders needs to be at or above the state average so these leaders choose to stay rather than seek a higher salary with increased benefits elsewhere.

With Illinois school districts in the dire financial straits they are reporting, some school boards might also consider consolidating small elementary and small high school districts in the same community. A unified district could share teachers, eliminate unnecessary duplication of services and reduce administrators. This could make financial sense without negatively affect the learning environment. It might also be one way to reduce disparity by improving administrator salaries in districts at the low end of the pay scale. This is not an easy discussion to have, but it is one worth thinking about long and hard.


The authors wish to thank Mark Hobneck of ISBE’s data and progress reporting division for providing raw data and advice on sorting data by regions.   For information about ISBE’s data collection process, visit

Thanks also to Serena Ju Huang, graduate assistant at Western Illinois University, for sorting and organizing the data.

For Part I of this two-part series, and for the administrative salary reports covering 1998 to 2007, visit the IASB website here