Lisa Harvin had plenty of job choices after she moved back to the East Coast from Los Angeles two years ago. Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County all wanted her to sign on as a principal.
Her heart led her to Baltimore: Her hometown and the school system that had educated her was asking her to lead one of its prized schools, Mount Washington Elementary. And the city's offer came first, ahead of a more lucrative deal in Montgomery County she might have taken.
Baltimore got lucky this once, but it may have to pay more to attract and hold on to experienced and talented principals like Harvin, who makes $76,000 and admits that she has moments when she ponders whether she made the right choice.
As important as principals are to improving schools - perhaps the critical ingredient, research shows - their salaries in the city are an average of $10,000 less than their counterparts in area counties earn.
That has left the city, where 86 of its schools have been labeled failing, scrambling to replace retiring principals and stymied in its efforts to remove ineffective ones.
"We don't have a long list of qualified people from the outside interested in our principalships," said Betty Morgan, chief academic officer, acknowledging that the low salaries are one of the reasons applicants have chosen other school districts.
And many of the insiders who show potential need more training and experience, she said. School officials have instituted an internship program last month that pairs aspiring principals with veterans for six months of on-the-job training.
In the next several months, school administrators say they hope to give the chief executive officer a plan to increase pay, but whether the school board will make it a priority in a year of financial difficulties is a question.
Salaries in the city range from $58,000 for an elementary school principal with little experience to a high of $90,000 for those who have been in the system the longest, but the average salary is $70,617, according to Maryland Department of Education statistics.
Only one area school system pays less, Harford County, where principals' salaries average $69,851. The averages in other counties are Howard, $83,613; Anne Arundel, $81,552; Baltimore County, $77,780; and Carroll, $76,841.
Baltimore principals earn far less than a chain grocery store manager's salary of between $75,000 and $100,000, according to Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, a retail industry publication.
"The research indicates that the principal plays such a pivotal role that people are beginning to pay attention to salary. A good number of high school principals make a $100,000 a year," said Michael Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership.
But not in Baltimore. James Scofield, principal of Northwestern High School, a zoned high school with 1,400 students, makes $70,998, according to data the school system provided under Maryland public records laws.
Scofield has been the principal there for years and is credited with making substantial improvements at the school.
Joe Wilson, principal of City College, a school whose academic standards have risen recently, makes $83,000.
Morgan agrees that salaries should be boosted, but she said the system has made its first priority increasing teacher salaries, which also were much lower than in surrounding counties.
The city's principal salaries have remained comparatively low even as the shortage of qualified principals grows and the pressures of the job increase.
Half of all principals nationally will be eligible to retire in the next five years. That leaves districts with low salaries at a disadvantage when trying to attract new talent.
In Baltimore, 34 of the 180 principals in the system have left in the past two years, including 22 who retired and eight who left for other jobs. In 1998, the school system put 40 principals on improvement plans, and 15 of those retired or left under pressure.
Maryland, like many states across the nation, has instituted a yearly test that measures each school's performance. The result has been to hold principals accountable for the success or failure of their schools in ways that weren't heard of 10 years ago.
Principals are told they should be "instructional leaders" for their schools, leaders who spend their time in the classrooms observing how well the curriculum is taught and helping teachers become better.
For a Baltimore principal that may mean finding a way to help a cadre of young, inexperienced teachers raise the scores in classrooms where 70 percent of the children are reading below grade level.
"I think it is the most cost effective thing you can do to improve a school ... to get a good principal and give them the authority to hire good teachers," said Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, a non-profit agency, which has funded many programs in the city schools.