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Principal prospects thinning out

Fewer teachers want the thankless task of managing a school, creating concerns about a principal shortage.

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Wanted: High-energy leader to oversee a $6-million franchise with 200 employees. Must be an outstanding motivator. Extensive knowledge of laws, codes and regulations governing school management required. Public relations skills a must. Thick skin helpful (your job performance will routinely be questioned publicly). Night and weekend work required. Mid-$50,000s to start.

Pasco school officials are saying fewer people want such jobs, leaving top administrators worried they're on the cusp of a principal shortage.

Growing enrollments, new school construction and retirements in Pasco schools are likely to create openings for 25 to 30 principals in the next five years, according to one district report. This at a time when principals are under unprecedented scrutiny for everything from school safety to student test scores. Couple that with starting salaries that, in some cases, pay less per hour than those of veteran teachers, and the district is having a tough time convincing many young teachers to make the leap to principal.

"We're having a hard time getting people to be administrators, period," said Judith Kistler, the school district's director of human resources.

Like most educational issues, the problem reaches beyond Pasco County.

In Philadelphia, for example, applicants for principal jobs are down about 75 percent in the past 10 years, according to one published report. A recent opening at Springstead High in Hernando County brought only two out-of-district applicants, which had the superintendent contemplating extending the search. And in a national study released last year, half of 403 randomly selected school districts reported a shortfall of qualified principal candidates.

That's bad news for kids and parents. More than 20 years of studies have found that effective principals are a vital component in raising the quality of teaching in the nation's schools.

"So much responsibility rests on the shoulders of principals," said Susan Rine, a former principal who now oversees Pasco's elementary schools. "Through state statutes and public expectations, the principal is the person we hold responsible for everything that happens in a school."

One reason for the shortfall may be money. Although a mid-level principal's salary is about 40 percent more than a mid-level teacher's, principals work year-round. For example, Pasco teachers with 21 years' experience make about $28 an hour. If they move into administration, their beginning assistant principal salary would pay $27 an hour, and they would have to work an additional three weeks a year.

"(Teachers) look at that and say, "Gee, I'm doing pretty well,' " Kistler said.

Just last week, the Pasco County School Board approved new job descriptions for 66 positions, including principals. The description for high school principals is 3{ pages, single-spaced, and lists 79 "essential performance responsibilities." They cover everything from evaluating the maintenance needs of a school to serving as the final arbitrator for difficult discipline decisions.

In between are requirements for expertise in curriculum development, budgeting, public relations, teacher training and data analysis, to name a few. Pile on pressure to keep test scores high, dropout rates low and parents appeased, and administrators can quickly be overwhelmed, Albano said.

"Public education is under such a microscope, and we really don't have many advocates," said Larry Albano, principal of Hudson Middle School and an administrator for 19 years. "Almost everybody is in a defensive posture, and that's a big departure from just several years ago."

Albano said he typically works 10 hours a day during the school year. In addition, he attends two or three student-led activities in the evenings or on weekends, such as dances, concerts or athletic events. It all adds up to 55 or 60 hours a week at school, he said.

"You are hardly ever in the office," Albano said. "You're out in the school bonding with students, getting to know parents, talking with staff. There are a myriad of different challenges."

Every Florida school district is required to operate a two-year program for principals-in-training. Successful completion of the program results in a state principal's certificate. It is from this pool of newly minted principals that most school districts hire their administrators.

There are 24 program graduates in Pasco's principal pool, half of whom are eligible for jobs heading up elementary schools. Six more administrators are halfway through the program, and another six will begin this year. Altogether, those numbers mean that less than 1 percent of the district's teachers are readying themselves to become principals.

Zephyrhills High School principal Jim Davis said he knows several young teachers with strong leadership skills who do not want to go into administration. Most enthusiastic young teachers want to stay in the classroom, he said, because they see that as their true calling.

"We've all talked about it," Davis said of discussions he has had with other principals about the lack of administrative applicants. "We're all concerned about building up that principal pool. We'd love to have some of these (young teachers) pursue administration, but it's got to be something they want."

_ Times staff writer Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischersptimes.com.

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