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The Charleston Charter School for Math and Science hired its 10th principal in nine years in the fall of 2017. The school has one of the highest principal turnover rates in the county — and a new University of South Carolina study suggests that trend may have hidden costs. File/Staff

South Carolina school districts might save money by paying their principals higher salaries rather than paying the price of replacing them every few years, according to a new University of South Carolina study.

A team of researchers broke down the expenses associated with hiring high school principals in six South Carolina public school districts and determined the average cost of replacing a principal, including supplies, training and personnel time spent working on the search process, was $23,974.29.

The highest replacement cost was $51,659.27; the lowest was $10,413.03.

"Although districts may indicate they do not have the financial resources to increase principal pay, districts may already be paying more merely to continuously fill the position," the researchers write in "The cost of replacing South Carolina high school principals," out this month in the academic journal Management in Education.

South Carolina ranked 24th in average principal salary, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The USC researchers' findings might have applications in Charleston County where some schools have seen high rates of principal turnover. Sanders-Clyde Elementary recently announced its sixth principal in eight years, North Charleston High had eight principals between 2000 and 2011, and the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science hired its 10th principal in nine years last fall.

Previous research has already established the damaging effects of "churn" in the principal's office. A 2010 study in the journal Leadership and Policy in Schools found that it takes a principal five to seven years to turn a school around, but a 2014 study by the School Leaders Network found that half of new principals quit by their third year on the job.

Mary Carmichael, the current principal at Charleston Charter for Math and Science, cited the same study about the five-year change model for principals.

"The total impact (of principal turnover) is hard to measure when you consider the lack of focus on the long term goals of the school. Relationships and trust take time to develop," Carmichael said in an email.

High principal turnover can also have a trickle-down effect, increasing the already high rate of teacher turnover that has concerned education researchers across the country.

What USC researchers Henry Tran, Jessica McCormick and Trang Nguyen wanted to measure was the sheer financial impact of replacing a principal — both in terms of up-front budgetary needs and in terms of the money and time that could have been spent elsewhere.

To do that, they factored in opportunity costs, or the gains the schools could have seen if their employees and resources were invested in something other than a principal search. Researchers surveyed leaders at six districts ranging in size from about 1,700 students to 27,000 students, and their final calculations included the hours spent on the separation, recruiting and hiring process by high-paid district employees, such as superintendents, chief administrative officers and directors of human resources.

As is often the case with school district budgets, personnel costs were the biggest-ticket item. District officials, teachers and other principals often had to spend time in search committees or providing mentorship to new hires. At the high end of the spectrum, one district reported that 56 employees worked a combined 421 hours in the course of hiring seven principals. (The districts were kept anonymous for the sake of the report.)

"Some districts have established committees where they have the superintendent, a principal, teachers, community members, et cetera. From our perspective, all those things are not cost-less, because you’re taking someone’s time out of doing something else," Tran said in a phone interview Tuesday.

"A teacher could be in the classroom teaching or providing tutoring support to a student as opposed to sitting in a meeting to help hire a principal," Tran added.

They also attached a price tag to the use of school facilities for principal search meetings, as opposed to educational uses. Additionally, they factored in money spent training new principals; enrolling them in professional networking groups; and buying computers, cellphones and even office supplies for new principals.

New business cards? New nameplates for the principal's desk and office door? New letterhead? All of that went into the final calculation.

Previous studies have found salary is a major factor in principals' decisions to stay or leave a school. While principals in the USC study group mostly left voluntarily, a 2012 study in the journal Educational Researcher found the majority of administrative personnel changes were influenced by district decisions, including "recruiting/tapping, requesting, reassigning, passing over, and removing."

Drawing on previous studies, the researchers suggested districts could reduce principal turnover by raising administrator salaries, starting induction programs or investing in stress management training.

According to previous studies cited in the USC report, the average cost of replacing a teacher in the U.S. is $8,371, although the cost tends to be higher in larger districts.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.