It's all about perception
Dean Halverson and Lora Wolff are professors of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University. Clint Iadanza is an educational leadership doctoral student at WIU.
You probably are familiar with this well-known perceptual illusion. What do you see first when you look at the picture, an elderly lady or a young woman? Some people immediately see one form; others see the other. Some people can only see that which they first see. It’s a matter of perspective based on personal and professional experiences and framework.
The same can be said when examining principal and superintendent salaries. Depending on personal and professional experiences (and where one’s salary is on the state’s ranking), each individual will have a unique perception.
Every year when we get the salary information for principals and superintendents in Illinois, we’re excited to see what changed and to see what’s going on. This year reminds us of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” There isn’t much change to report. Over the past few years, we’ve gotten pretty much the same results.
The data is provided by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). The Illinois School Code requires school districts annually report to ISBE, “the base salary and benefits of the district superintendent … and all administrators and teachers employed by the school district. For the purposes of this Section, ‘benefits’ include without limitation vacation days, sick days, bonuses, annuities, and retirement enhancements.”
What stands out among these consistent numbers are, again this year, the disparities in administrative salaries and per-student expenditure across the state, the uncertainty of Illinois school finance, and the worries about the pension systems. All three of these areas affect the work being done by the state’s principals and superintendents.
From our perception (as retired Iowa administrators and college professors), not much has changed, other than that the salary disparities around the state of Illinois may have increased.
Principal salary overview
For the third straight year, average principal salaries in the state increased (see Table 1). In 2014, the average principal salary was $99,175 and by 2017 it had increased to $102,253, with 3,724 principals reporting. After no gain or loss the previous year, principal salaries overall had modest gains (+1.6 percent) in the latest report year.
For the second year in a row, the average female principal salary (see Table 2) was higher than the average male principal salary (see Table 3). Female principals had a 2.3 percent average salary increase; males’ salaries increased under 1 percent. Additionally, the highest principal salary was held by a female ($238,007).
The median principal salary also increased each year from 2014 ($97,294) to 2017 ($101,038). The median salary increased by almost $3,800.
Principal salaries by region
In examining salaries by region (see Table 4, page 14), elementary principals and high school principals in the southeast region and middle school principals in the southwest region had the smallest percentage increases. The lowest average salary for elementary principals was in the southeast region ($68,457). Similarly, middle school principals ($83,627) and high school principals ($78,099) in the southeast region had the lowest average salaries.
The highest average principal salaries for elementary ($112,435), middle school ($119,054), and high school principals ($129,717) were in the northeast region.
Of the three principal groups, high school principal salaries were the highest in all six regions.
Principal national comparisons
Illinois principals’ salaries at the 90th, 75th, 50th, 25th, and 10th percentiles are reported in Table 5. Illinois principal salaries far exceed the national salaries at the 90th percentile by $13,000; however, the national salaries exceeded those of Illinois principals at the 50th percentile by $1300 and at the 10th percentile by $11,500. When comparing salary increases from 2016 to 2017, at the 90th percentile both Illinois and national salaries increased by 2.7 percent. At the 50th percentile and at the 10th percentile, the national increases were 2.7 percent, compared to Illinois at 1.7 percent.
Superintendent salary highlights
From 2016 to 2017, the average Illinois superintendent salaries (see Table 6) increased by 1.7 percent to $138,229. During the same period, female superintendents’ average salaries (see Table 7) increased by 4.1 percent and were over $10,000 higher than their male counterparts (see Table 8, page 12). The highest reported superintendent salary in 2017 was $369,835 (an increase of approximately $20,000 from the previous year).
Superintendent salaries by region
Superintendent salaries by region can be found in Table 9 (see page 12). The lowest average elementary superintendent salary in 2017 was in the southeast region ($73,833) with the lowest high school district superintendent salary in the east central region ($117,634). The lowest unit district superintendent salary was in the southeast region ($102,298). The lowest salaries in each type of district have been consistent for the last four years (2014 to 2017).
The highest superintendent salaries for elementary districts ($180,058, a 2 percent increase), high school districts ($209,466, a 4.5 percent increase), and unit districts ($186,814, a 3.7 percent increase) were all in the northeast region. These findings were also consistent over the last four years (2014 to 2017).
Additionally, the northeast region average salaries were significantly higher than the average for all other regions, including notably:
Northeast elementary district average salaries were $66,125 greater than the southeast region;
Northeast high school district salaries were $91,812 greater than the east central region;
Northeast unit district average salaries were $71,042 greater the east central region.
When looking at the high salaries, the highest superintendent was an elementary superintendent in the northeast region ($369,835) with the lowest high superintendent salary ($152,500) also an elementary superintendent, but from the northwest region.
Illinois and national superintendent salary comparison
Comparisons to national percentiles are presented in Table 10 (see page 12). Illinois superintendent salaries for 2017 at the 90th percentile exceeded (by $1,857) national salaries, however, national salaries exceeded those of Illinois superintendents at both the 50th (by $18,817) and 10th (by $45,519) percentiles. Another comparison of interest is the percent of raise at the various percentiles. At all five of the percentiles, the national salary increase from 2016 to 2017 exceeded those of the Illinois superintendents (90th – 2.1 percent vs 2.6 percent; 50th – 1.9 percent vs 2.5 percent; and at the 10th – 0 percent vs 30 percent).
From our perceptions (as retired administrators from Iowa and professors at Western Illinois University), it may be time for the State of Illinois (we’d venture to say the same could be said for most states) to make a change, to step aside from political wrangling. The school funding reform legislation passed last year appears to be a step forward in the direction of reducing the disparities in per-student funding. Whether or not the disparities in principal and superintendent salaries decrease as well, only time will tell.
School districts may have to be more open to the long-term good and realize that if we don’t find ways to address the disparities, a large number of schools and districts will suffer, and that means students will suffer. The quality principals and superintendents we have the honor to work with on a daily basis may perceive the “pretty young lady” in the image of school districts in a different region, or across the state’s boundaries. Comparing salaries may be a matter of perception, but perception may be reality. As you look at your salary, or the salary of your principal or superintendent, is it the old lady or the young woman? Maybe it is time for a perceptual adjustment before we develop a shortage of quality principals and superintendents.
From 1995 to 2007, researchers at Western Illinois University collected and compiled data on the salaries of district superintendents and principals in Illinois. During that time, The Illinois School Board Journal published reports of the voluntarily submitted data. With the introduction of mandatory reporting of administration salaries, the data was unavailable for several years. In 2014, the Illinois State Board of Education made its data available to researchers, and the Journal and WIU resumed collaboration on the reports. The full series is available online.
ISBE Education Data Systems
Principals’ salaries from Salary.com
Links to this and all resources from this issue of The Illinois School Board Journal can be accessed at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html.