It's all relative: Administrator salaries show regional gaps
Lora Wolff and Dean Halverson are professors of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University in Macomb. This is the latest installment a long-term series of analyses assessing trends in administrator salaries in Illinois, published in the Journal and based on the work of members of the Education Studies Department at WIU.
My husband and I enjoy playing games, including lots of board games. In fact, Jim, a retired third-grade teacher, and I keep spreadsheets of wins and losses, scores, average scores, and point differentials (this is not normal, I know). Our favorite game right now is “Lost Cities,” a two-player game with an archaeological expedition theme. Out of 893 games, I have won 482 and my husband has won 411. I’m leading by 71 games — not bragging, just stating facts. The dialogue after a typical hand goes something like this:
Lora: You got 44 points. That’s a pretty good score.
Jim: Yeah, but look at yours: 109!
Lora: Well, for most hands 44 is a good score.
Jim: It’s all relative.
The points we earn in a game of “Lost Cities” is much like principal and superintendent salaries in Illinois: It’s all relative.
In examining principal salaries (see Table 1) from the most recent three years, the highest salary was $224,535, in 2016. Over that span, no clear patterns emerge from the data. The average principal salary across the state increased each year with a total increase of approximately $1,500. There was more growth in the average and median salaries from 2015 to 2016 than from 2014 to 2015. However, the percentage change in principal salaries was zero.
Principal salary data for males (see Table 2) and females (see Table 3) once again showed that a female has the highest principal salary in the state. But the difference between male and female average salaries was less than $10. Principal salaries were also broken down into percentiles (see Table 4). In every category, principal salaries increased over the three-year period.
The highest-salaried superintendent in Illinois made $350,000 in 2016, which was an increase of over $13,000 from both 2014 and 2105 (see Table 5). After an increase in average superintendent salaries in 2015, average salaries decreased in 2016. However, there was an increase in the median salary in both 2015 and 2016.
Male superintendents continue to outnumber female superintendents, currently by more than 400. However, for the second year in a row, a female had the highest superintendent salary in the state and the average salary for females was higher than for males (see Tables 6 and 7). It is worth noting that the median salary for males increased by $2,385 and the median salary for females decreased by $2,601.
When looking at salaries by percentile groups from 2014, 2015, and 2016, all groups showed an increase from year to year except superintendents in the 10th percentile, where the salaries have significant fluctuation (see Table 8). Salary differences exist in all three years with an average difference between categories of $23,000 with the highest difference, of $41,000, between the 75th and 50th percentiles.
Illinois and national comparisons
When looking at data it is important to have a frame of reference to put the primary data in perspective. Without such comparisons, it is difficult to determine if Illinois administrator salaries are high, low, or about average.
We began our comparison by examining Iowa superintendent salaries. According to the Iowa Department of Education, the average 2015-2016 school superintendent salary in Iowa was $142,127 compared to Illinois’ $135,885. The highest-paid superintendent had a salary of $279,049 compared to Illinois’ $350,000. The lowest full-time salary in Iowa was $81,750. It is important to note of the 342 Iowa districts, 45 share a superintendent, compared to nine of 850 in Illinois.
Pennsylvania ’s population of 12,802,503 is the closest in number to Illinois population of 12,859,995. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education and openPA.gov, Pennsylvania has 501 school districts compared to Illinois’ 856. The average salary for superintendents in Pennsylvania for 2015-2016 was $140,497. The highest-paid superintendent in Pennsylvania was paid $304,523.
In addition to comparing superintendent salaries with nearby Iowa and statistically- similar Pennsylvania, it is also enlightening to compare Illinois to national salaries. Table 8 includes national data which provides a comparison of 2016 salaries by percentile. At the 90th percentile, Illinois exceeded the national average by one percent. At all other percentiles the Illinois salaries were lower than the national average.
These discrepancies far exceeded the differences found in the principal data (see Table 4). Our speculation is that this is related to the number of school districts in the state of Illinois, which has the third-most in the nation.
Principal comparisons with the national data can be found in Table 4 with the comparison of 2016 salaries. At the 90th and 75th percentiles, Illinois salaries exceeded the national figures by 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively. The 50th percentile salaries were statistically close, with a difference of $339. The Illinois salaries were lower than the national average at the 25th and 10th percentiles by 5 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Although these differences are somewhat discouraging, they pale in comparison to the differences in superintendent salaries. Another positive note for principals comes from The Recruiter, which reported that in 2016 Illinois was one of the seven states in which the average principal salary exceeded $100,000. The other states were California, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware.
Salary analysis by region
Although it is important to compare Illinois salaries to other states and the nation, it is also worth examining salaries within Illinois. As in previous analyses, we divided the state into six regions: East Central, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, and West Central (see map).
Principal salaries by region for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 years are presented in Table 9. Salaries are listed by elementary, middle school, or high school principals. In looking at the average principal salaries, the Southeast region had five of the six lowest average salaries with the West Central region having the lowest middle school average principal salary in 2016.
The Northeast region had the highest average salaries for elementary (2015: $110,929; 2016: $110,583), middle school (2015: $144,689; 2016: $116,521), and high school principals (2015: $123,668; 2016: $124,283).
When analyzing the high salaries by region, the Southeast region also had the lowest middle school principals’ salary for both years. The East Central had two of the lowest high salaries (2015: $119,413 for elementary principals; 2016: $131,813 for high school principals). The West Central region also had two of the lowest high salaries. The Northeast region with the highest number of principals had the highest salaries for both years for elementary, middle school, and high school principals.
In looking at the principal salary gap between regions for the 2016-2017 school year, we found the following regional statistics notable:
- The average elementary principals’ salary in the Northeast is $41,821 higher than in the Southeast.
- For elementary principals, the gap between the Northeast’s highest salary and the West Central’s highest salary is $80,830. That is greater than the average elementary principal salary in East Central, West Central, or Southeast.
- The average salary gap for middle school principals is $35,447.
- The high salary gap for middle school principals $69,121.
- The average salary gap for high school principals is $44,644.
- For high school principals, the gap between the Northeast’s high salary and the East Central’s high salary is $92,722. This gap is greater than the Southeast’s average principals’ salary of $79,639.
Table 10 displays the superintendent salaries by region for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 years. Salaries are broken down by elementary, high school, and unit school districts. In looking at the average superintendent salaries, the Southeast region had four of the six lowest average salaries with the East Central region having the lowest high school average superintendent salary in 2016.
Similar to the principals’ salary data, the Northeast region had the highest average salaries for elementary district superintendents (2015: $177,117; 2016: $176,515), high school district superintendents (2015: $198,835; 2016: $199,847), and unit districts (2015: $176,411; 2016: $179,872).
When analyzing the high salaries by region, the East Central region had the lowest high school district and unit district superintendents’ high salary for both years. For elementary districts, the West Central region had the lowest 2015 high salary and the Northwest region had the lowest high salary for 2016.
The Northeast region, with the highest number of superintendents, had the highest salaries for elementary, high school, and unit district superintendents (2015: $335,553; 2016: $350,000), high school district superintendents (2015: $336,350; 2016: $336,500), and high school (2015: $268,567; 2016: $263,312).
As with the principals, the gap numbers demonstrate disparities with superintendent salaries. Notable when examining the superintendent salary gaps for the 2015-2016 school year are:
- The gap between the highest (Northeast at $176,515) and lowest (Southeast at $76,949) elementary district superintendents’ average salary is $99,566. The gap is greater than the average salaries in all of the non-Northeast regions.
- Same holds for high salaries. The elementary district superintendents’ high salary gap is $200,001; the gap is greater than the high salaries in all of the non-Northeast regions.
- The high school district superintendents’ high salary gap is $195,172, greater than the highest salaries in all of the non-Northeast regions.
- The unit district superintendents’ average salary gap of $79,082 and unit district superintendents’ high salary gap $74,767 demonstrate lower discrepancies than with elementary and high school districts.
Student enrollment and number of districts
Every year the topic of the number of school districts in Illinois is discussed. Data from Proximityone indicates that when compared with the other most populous states, the average number of students per district in Illinois is significantly lower than most. In order of population, the average number of pupils per district is
- California : 38,190
- Texas : 25,457
- Florida : 213,381
- New York : 29,154
- Illinois : 14,209
- Pennsylvania : 3,500
Clearly, the most populous states administer public school populations differently. The Illinois number of students per district is approximately half that of Texas and New York and a little under a third of the number in California. Pennsylvania serves even fewer students per district than Illinois.
The number of school districts has decreased significantly in the past 60 years as schools have consolidated. At the national level, the decrease was about 75 percent while in Illinois it was about 55 percent. It appears the challenge of consolidation has been ongoing in the state of Illinois and may explain the discrepancies in the salaries of Illinois superintendents compared the national data.
Each year when we do this salary analysis, we are taken aback by the disparity in salaries across Illinois. Disparities exist by region and by building or district configuration. At some levels, the disparities make sense. It costs more to buy a house in the cities and suburbs than in rural Illinois. A high school principal tends to have many more night and weekend activities than does an elementary principal. Some buildings have 80 students while others have over 2,000. Some districts have 200 students while others have 40,000 students. This is understood.
However, the magnitude of the differences takes me back to that game of “ Lost Cities” and my husband’s comment, “It’s all relative.” Are administrator salaries in Illinois just relative, or is there something bigger going on that needs to be addressed? Administrator salary discrepancies and the number of districts in Illinois may just be the elephants in the room that nobody really wants to talk about and to tackle.
But of course, some will say, it’s all relative.
Thanks to Mark Hobneck of ISBE’s data and progress reporting division for providing the raw data. Click here for information about ISBE’s data collection process. Thanks to Deepthi Sangara and Clint Iadanza, graduate assistants at Western Illinois University, for sorting and analyzing the data.
ISBE Education Data Systems: www.isbe.net/Pages/ISBE-Education-Data-Systems.aspx
Iowa Department of Education: https://www.educateiowa.gov/
Pennsylvania : http://www.openpagov.org/school_payroll.asp
Proximity One data information services: proximityone.com/sdstate.htm
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 them, the series has resumed. The full series is available here.