But experts remain wary of cases like Wiltshire’s, where one principal oversees two schools. The principals who are trying to make that arrangement work have generally handed off their original school to a deputy—but even then, playing double duty can be punishing. “This is like running a city and running a village,” said Connie Hamilton, the founder of a successful small school who was brought in to stabilize a large Brooklyn school. “I’m exhausted.”
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Seasoned, successful principals are a precious commodity. So, how do you distribute them?
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to lure top principals to challenging schools with a $25,000 bonus and the title “executive principal.” In return, they agreed to leave their current schools and commit to three years at the new placement. However, several principals stumbled in their new assignments, and the program was mostly abandoned after two years.
When current New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña negotiated a new contract with the principals’ union in late 2014, she put her own spin on the program. Now dubbed “master principals,” they would still earn $25,000 bonuses. But instead of switching schools, they would take on an additional assignment—either running a second school or mentoring a new principal. And, in contrast to Bloomberg’s program, the principals got an escape clause: After each year, they had the option of returning to their original school if juggling two became unmanageable.
“We said to our members: You don’t get locked into this,” said principals’ union President Ernest Logan. “It’s a year-to-year assignment.”
Other districts have made similar efforts. Newberg, Oregon, put one principal in charge of two schools to save money, while Gainesville, Florida, did it to fill a staffing shortfall. And, in a slight variation, Denver assigned a high-performing principal to oversee two other principals.
Logan, the union president, said New York City should use its program to let experienced principals coach rookies—not to coax veterans to take on low-performing schools in addition to their current ones. “I think it’s a mistake to use it as a way to turn around a struggling school,” he said. “When you try to do both of them, you’re splitting your effort.”
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The master-principal role offers established leaders an enticing opportunity: Take a stab at revamping a troubled school without fully leaving their successful one.
That was the offer that convinced Wiltshire to take on Brooklyn’s long-struggling Boys and Girls High School while continuing to oversee Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, a selective school he had spent more than a decade building into a powerhouse. As he told Chalkbeat in 2014, he expected to stay heavily involved in Medgar Evers, even as he tried to overhaul one of the city’s lowest-performing high schools.