The Blake School only needs one thing from its first new headmaster in 14 years: someone who can do it all.
When Seattle school leader Anne Stavney takes the top spot in a few months, she'll have to be a financial expert, fundraising guru and curriculum specialist, all wrapped into one. She'll also be under intense pressure to keep alums and parents happy, propel students into selective colleges and be at round-the-clock school activities.
"You have to be a combination of CEO and Mr. Chips," Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, said about the changing role of K-12 private school leaders. Or, as headmasters joke, "God on a good day."
In recent years, the top job at prestigious private schools such as Blake has evolved into a more CEO-like position, with salaries and pressures to match. Among the nation's most-elite prep schools, leaders receive a half-million dollars in total compensation a year -- double that of their public school peers.
While public paychecks have come under increasing scrutiny, the average private school headmaster salary has grown from $131,000 in 2001 to $198,000 in 2010, according to school surveys, keeping pace with CEO pay for small businesses and the higher demands placed on them. Some schools are even drawing from the corporate sector.
"There is a desire on the part of the community to work magic, squeeze 72 hours out of every day," said John Gulla, outgoing headmaster at Blake. "I don't go to Lunds without expecting to run into constituents."
Gulla runs a $37 million annual budget, oversees a $50 million endowment and drums up $1.9 million in donations a year to provide high-quality teachers, innovative programs and state-of-the-art facilities. In return, he receives a $275,000 base salary, or about $581,000 in total compensation, according to last year's tax forms -- comparable only to Breck School in Minneapolis.
The high pay keeps Blake in pace with the most elite nationwide, Bassett said. "It's clearly a matter of supply and demand."
Stavney, now assistant head at Seattle's Lakeside School, is already preparing for her first top role after being selected last month in a national search. She said her initial package won't be as much as Gulla's, but she'll be generously compensated for the competitive job.
"I look forward to building on all that he's done," she said.
As Blake's next top leader, she'll be the public image for the high-profile school, helping sell it to families during the tight economic times that have fueled fierce competitiveness among schools for students.
The 1,400-student school, with campuses in Hopkins, Wayzata and Minneapolis, is the largest private school in Minnesota. Statewide, more than 74,000 students attend private schools -- 9 percent of the public school population.
"No family is here because it's the default option," said Gulla, who juggles his days between school events like the recent state tennis championship game to meetings with some of the 9,000 alumni.
On Sundays, he's at his office "embarrassingly early" to tackle the couple hundred daily e-mails sent by everyone from parents to his bosses, the 24-member board of trustees.
"I don't know if he sleeps," board of trustees chairwoman Elizabeth Winton said.
Atop a pristine, wooded hill in Hopkins, Blake kindergartners learn French, while first-graders dive into engineering and programming lessons on new Mac computers. Like other private schools, Blake boasts small, rigorous classes and one-on-one counseling on college selection for juniors and their parents.
"That alone is enough to send your kids to Blake," said Paula Riggi of Minnetonka, who has three Blake students and gives school tours, aiming to disprove misconceptions. "People are very pleasantly surprised when they visit the school. It just seems like a regular school."
It isn't, exactly. The selective 111-year-old school admits about 58 percent of applicants. About 20 percent qualify for financial aid, while the rest of the 1,400 students foot the $13,700 to $22,850 bill for annual tuition. In exchange, they're promised a top-notch education.
Of any school in the state, Gulla said, Blake has the highest percentage of National Merit Scholars. Northwestern University and Dartmouth are among top picks for graduates, who include notables such as Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, Sen. Al Franken and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple. A 2007 Wall Street Journal list of top high schools had one Minnesota school: Blake.
"It's the Who's Who of tomorrow," Winton said.
But, Gulla said, Blake strives to be far from elitist, serving "the worthy, not just the wealthy." That's something Stavney said she will aim to continue, recruiting a more diverse teaching staff and student body.
A 24/7 job
Besides appeasing alumni and parents, headmasters face growing financial pressure as the economy squeezes alumni giving.
At Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Nick Stoneman has ramped up revenue by renting facilities, developing a golf course, even selling school bagels to the community. His initial career as an investment banker on Wall Street, he said, primed him for the fiscal pressures of leading the school.
In fact, more schools are drawing from the corporate sector, said Keith Shahan, president of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States in Chicago. Last year, an Ohio school chose a retired Procter & Gamble vice president as headmaster.
"These are big businesses now," he said.
The rising pressures have spurred higher pay.
The total compensation of $581,000 for Gulla and the $404,000 last year for Breck headmaster Ed Kim are nearly double most local private schools' total compensation, according to tax forms available. St. Paul Academy and Summit School's Bryn Roberts made $319,000.
Total pay for their peers in higher education and public K-12 schools doesn't come close. Nationally, though, they fall in line with the most prestigious schools. According to tax forms of 20 prep schools deemed the best by Forbes last year, half had total compensation in the $400,000 range; three topped $500,000.
Gulla, a personable Irish-Italian raised by public school teachers in Massachusetts, is returning to the East Coast this summer. To find a successor, "someone who could do it all," Winton said Blake vied with schools nationwide. Stavney beat out three finalists, one of whom was a college president.
"We're competing with schools in New York City and L.A.," Winton said. "We look at our school as one of the top opportunities in the country."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141