Seventeen Charleston County principals who oversee the school district's lowest-achieving schools will receive more than $320,000 in bonuses this year for working at their respective schools.

The bonus money comes directly from the state and can't be used to cover the $13.3 million in mid-year state funding cuts or the projected $28 million deficit next year. But the supplement money could be used for other school-based programs, such as credit recovery courses or training for teachers.

The practice of offering the bonuses started three years ago under former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, and the goal was to attract experienced principals to its most needy schools. The district since has offered bonuses at some below average and unsatisfactory-rated schools to recruit the best applicants.

The stipend amounts range from $15,000 to $25,000 annually, depending on whether it's an elementary, middle or high school, and the extra money was promised for three years. The state has guidelines for ways the intervention and assistance money can be used, and schools must submit plans annually to show how they will spend it to help the school overcome its academic challenges. Recruitment bonuses are permissible.

Statewide, 462 schools receive $68 million of this kind of state money, and 63 schools use a portion of that money for recruitment bonuses. State money aside, it's common for schools to offer signing bonuses to administrators and teachers in hard-to-fill areas such as math and special education.

Current Superintendent Nancy McGinley said she supports recognizing those who are making progress and that the supplement should be tied to results. These bonuses essentially were signing bonuses, and McGinley said she wasn't going to renege on the arrangement because it was a condition of employment and a contractual obligation.

When the three-year period ends for principals receiving the bonus, McGinley said continuation of the money will have to be tied to results. Two of the principals who began receiving a stipend three years ago, Charles Benton at Burke High School and Dan Conner at Stall High School, received a one-year extension earlier this year because of the progress their schools have made.

One principal, Mary Runyon at West Ashley High, thought her school's budget might be cut and declined to accept a $25,000 bonus. The school took a substantial hit this year when it lost $90,000 in state intervention and assistance money, and the school used Runyon's bonus toward supports such as an extra guidance counselor for at-risk students, a student concern specialist, a technology facilitator and an assistant principal for the ninth-grade academy.

Charleston County School Board Vice Chairman Gregg Meyers was on the board when the bonuses began, remembers hearing about them but couldn't recall details. Regardless, Meyers said that he fully supports any effort to try to place the best principals where the need is the greatest, and his only concern with the bonuses was whether they were working and resulting in improvement.

"I want the most talented people where they are needed the most," he said.

Board member Arthur Ravenel Jr., who was elected in the fall of 2006, said he doesn't remember ever discussing this issue with the board and that he would have liked to talk about it so he could decide what he thought about this practice. He's supportive of performance bonuses but said he didn't know enough about the recruitment bonuses to have an opinion.