But school officials only this year are looking closely at how to restructure pay for principals so that their salary is based on how large the school is and the programs in it.
The system also must provide more financial incentives for experienced teachers and assistant principals to move up. Right now, some say the added headaches aren't worth a few thousand dollars.
"The beginning salary is too low and the maximum salary is too low, and to achieve the maximum takes too long," said Ted Thornton, director of human resources in the city schools. Thornton is working on a proposal that would increase pay by an average 8 percent at a cost of about $1 million, a tiny portion of the $850 million annual budget.
That would increase the range of pay from $71,000 to $100,000. "If I can get to that range then I can compete with everyone except Montgomery and Fairfax counties," Thornton said. Fairfax is in Virginia; the average pay of a Montgomery principal is $92,000.
Thornton also would like to give bonuses to principals willing to take on the additional challenge of a school that is one of the worst. But just the ordinary duties of a principal are taxing.
They work 12 months, are responsible for managing budgets of millions of dollars, hiring and evaluating teachers and making sure that hundreds or even thousands of children are well educated and safe 180 days a year.
They make sure the toilets are clean, the roof doesn't leak, enough textbooks are in classrooms and special education students get the services federal law requires.
They must get parents involved and establish ties with businesses that could help fill the gaps when their school budgets aren't enough.
And when the day is done they must attack a mountain of paperwork from North Avenue.
"You have to work hard. It is not a 9-to-5 job," said Edna Greer, principal of the 1,100-student Leith Walk Elementary School. "I know principals who are in their buildings at 6:30 a.m. and they don't leave until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. They are not getting what they should in terms of recognition and money."
Embry, of the Abell Foundation, has tried to help. He said the foundation paid an annual bonus in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 to a former Northern principal, Helena Nobles Jones, for two years before she left to go to a suburban school system. But Embry said the school system has declined further assistance.
Some city principals say they have decided to stay in the city, even when other job offers come their way because they are committed to helping the city's children.
"I absolutely love my students, love my staff and love my parents," said Mount Washington's Harvin. But she said she is sometimes frustrated when she has to deal with city school bureaucracy. If she could be assured of finding a great school in a county, she could be lured away, she said.
"I believe the inequities are a part of the reason why quite a number of principals have left. ... These are things the city must take a look at if they want to retain qualified principals," she said.