In the city, principals' job descriptions include everything from formulating their own budgets based on per-pupil expenditures, hiring their own teachers and school staff, and securing resources to support the academic needs of their students.

Above all, they are charged with significantly and rapidly raising student achievement in one of the lowest-performing and poorest districts in the state — and their jobs depend on it.

Their roles continue to expand as the district attempts to implement critical education reforms. In the past year, principals have been deemed "instructional leaders," given the task of juggling new national programs and teacher evaluation structures. The district hired 16 new central office administrators at $125,000 salaries last year to help coach and evaluate principals through the reforms.

When Alonso's school autonomy system was proposed, Jimmy Gittings, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, likened the measure to creating "mini-superintendents."

Mirroring a contract negotiated by the Baltimore Teachers Union, the administrators union ratified a new pact last spring that included a 2 percent retroactive pay raise and $1,800 stipend for 600 principals, assistant principals and central office staff.

The contract eliminates annual step increases — raises based on seniority and academic degrees — and implements a new career ladder that principals can climb to earn top salaries.

"That was the reason we spent so much time and money to negotiate the best contract we could secure for our members," Gittings said. "I was determined as president of this union to stop the exit of the expertise that has been leaving the system because of unfair pay, and not being compensated fairly for the responsibilities that have been put on our principals in this city."

The new contract's career pathways could see the most distinguished principals making between $132,000 and $160,000, but officials are still negotiating details.

Clark Montgomery, the principal of Frederick Douglass High School, is listed as the highest-paid principal in the city for 2011, according to the data provided by the school system. He was hired in 2007 and earned $151,821, but is no longer leading that school.

Each district's salary reflects many variables, such as how long a principal has been in the system, and the level and number of degrees they've earned. For example, in Baltimore County, officials said their average salaries reflect a veteran principal corps.

There is also a salary hierarchy common in most districts — the higher the grade level, the higher the pay. For example, high school principals tend to make more than their elementary school counterparts.

And in Baltimore, other variables come into play. For example, the average salary in the city reflects a younger principal corps and recent turnover. More than 90 percent of principals who were leading schools when Alonso arrived are no longer in their positions.

Edwards said, however, that the new administrators contract will address some long-standing inequities.

Salary data show that even principals who have worked their way up through the system, including some who were hired in the 1970s, still aren't among the highest-paid. And those who run the largest schools and ones with the toughest populations haven't been, either.

School officials said that many of the higher-paid principals who haven't been in the system long most likely negotiated their higher salaries, while those who have been in the system for decades have experienced modest step increases under union contracts.

Union leaders say the city has to recognize that principals who work in districts with more demands have more at stake.

In Baltimore, principals have been fired for declining test scores and stripped of their licenses for cheating scandals because Alonso holds them responsible for what happens in their schools.

And recently, that responsibility has gone beyond just being held accountable by Alonso. In December, two principals faced a jury trial after being sued for negligence in the alleged bullying of students. The jury found in the favor of the principals.

"When something great happens, everyone hears and thanks the superintendent, the teachers, but not the principals," Woodard said.

"But if a head has to roll on the chopping block, it will be your local principal's. And still, you've got a lot of dedicated people who, regardless of pay, have stepped up to save the lives of children."