This story has been updated to include additional information about the number of candidates in the principal eligibility pool, the number of candidates CPS has hired from outside the district, the number of principals who are retiring, and the fact that this program is aimed at low-performing schools.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Friday that CPS will offer up to 50 out-of-town principals privately funded $25,000 signing bonuses for landing jobs in low-performing schools.

The move comes as the school system faces what may be an unusually large exodus of school leaders.

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says 2012 could be a watershed year for principal retirements because the district’s Pension Enhancement Program is expiring. The retirement incentive allows employees to boost their long-term pension earnings by counting unused sick and vacation day payouts as part of their final salary. The program was set to expire before Emanuel demanded an end to the perk.

As of the end of March, the deadline for taking advantage of the Pension Enhancement Program, 92 principals and 50 assistant principals had decided to retire, according to the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. “We’re going to have a number [of schools] where both the principal and the assistant principal go out at the same time,” Berry says.

Currently, there are 485 candidates in the principal eligibility pool, but more than 250 of those are sitting principals.

Local school council members also have complained that there are not enough good candidates in the pool of board-approved candidates. (In low-performing schools that are on probation, the district can override the LSC decision on principal hiring.)

Peggy Goddard, a member of the local school council at Morgan Park High School, said “there were a lot of issues” with the eligible candidates who applied for the job at Morgan Park. “A lot of typos, a lot of errors, a lot of not interviewing well.”

While signing bonuses are new, this is not the first time that CPS has tried to recruit principals from afar.

After launching the first CPS principal eligibility process in 2004, then-CEO Arne Duncan set his sights on out-of-town principals, but he did not have much success. CPS officials also sought out-of-town candidates when the most recent, tougher version of the eligibility process debuted, under the leadership of Ron Huberman.

In the 2010-11 school year, the district hired 17 new principals from outside CPS. But so far this year, the district has only found one.

In order to get a bonus, a principal must first pass the district’s rigorous eligibility process, which may soon become even more difficult.

In most cases, the principal then must apply at individual schools and be selected by local school councils. The CPS central administration may choose principals for schools on probation, but it sometimes leaves the choice to LSCs.

Berry says it may be “a hard sell” to get principals to move to Chicago, knowing that a local school council could refuse to renew their contract after four years, sometimes for political reasons.

“We have probably the most unique governance system of schools in the nation,” she says. “I don’t know that many people, understanding how LSCs have the authority to contract and renew principals, would be interested in coming here.”

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