Several of Region's High-Profile Private Schools Are Changing Leadership

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

Some of Washington's top private schools might be in for a cultural shift at the end of this school year, as they change leadership.

Although the search for a new school head isn't quite as secretive as a papal conclave -- parents aren't massing on MacArthur Boulevard waiting for a puff of white smoke to rise from a chimney at Georgetown Day School -- the job openings occur infrequently, and changes can be significant. The highly paid heads are the schools' public faces, and they juggle the academics and the financial well-being of the institution. Next year, Georgetown Day School and Sidwell Friends School, among the most competitive schools in the area, expect new heads. So do a number of other schools.

"The jobs are hard," said Thomas Toch, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington. "The demographics are challenging at the moment. We're in a recession. The challenge of filling schools continues to be ever-present. There are just a lot of moving parts in these schools. As the head, you have to do all of those things and run the academic side of the school."

In the past, school heads could luxuriate in a Mr. Chips-like existence, focusing primarily on education. Today, they have to be schmoozers who raise funds to pay for costly programs, construction titans who dream up new facilities, and managerial stars who keep students, parents, alumni and teachers mixing smoothly. One of the fastest ways that heads put their mark on a school is with the people they hire, but, Toch said, the recession has dampened that this year, making teachers slower to retire and less likely to shift jobs, and also making it harder to lead a school than in the past.

A drought of potential new heads a few years ago appears to have ended, said Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, a nonprofit organization that represents nearly 1,200 independent schools across the country. But candidates who have already headed other schools remain in short supply, he said. Heads of independent schools typically hold the post about eight years, according to the association.

At the 1,060-student Georgetown Day School, Peter Branch, the head since 1996 and only the fourth since the school was founded in 1945, is planning to retire at the end of this school year. At 1,100-student Sidwell Friends, Bruce Stewart, head of the school since 1998, retired in July and will be replaced next year by Thomas Farquhar, the head of Bullis School in Potomac. (An interim head is keeping the Sidwell seat warm this year.) With Farquhar's departure after this year, Bullis is engaged in a search of its own.

Other area private schools searching for or expecting new heads within a year include Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, the Hill School in Middleburg, the Madeira School in McLean, Sandy Spring Friends School and Capitol Hill Day School. That number of schools is roughly normal, Toch said; the difference this year is the high profile of the schools that are searching.

Heads said the search process gives schools a chance to think about their identities in new ways.

"A lot of what has been implicit in school culture has to become explicit" when the schools start meeting candidates, Farquhar said.

The search process can take six months to a year. Schools generally hire headhunting agencies to help them attract, then winnow, a pool of candidates.

The heads' salaries generally fall between those of public school superintendents and college presidents, which is in part a reflection of the high demand and short supply for the most qualified candidates. Branch's total compensation from Georgetown Day, including benefits and expenses, was $442,097 for the year that ended in June 2008. At Bullis, Farquhar's total compensation including benefits and expenses was $336,222. Total compensation for public school superintendents in the Washington region, including benefits and perks, averaged $350,078 in fiscal 2007-08, according to a 2007 Washington Post analysis.

Neither Farquhar nor Branch said he thought his school is in for profound changes.

Branch said that Georgetown Day had a history of "activist" heads but that he hoped the school "wouldn't radically change direction" with a new leader.

Farquhar said that he might seize opportunities for Sidwell as they came up in his first year there, but that his main plan is to get to know the school's culture. Someone once gave him a piece of advice, he said: "In the first year, you have one assignment, and the assignment is to drink coffee."

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