The ranks of prestigious New England prep schools — the Andovers, Exeters, and Grotons of the world — have long served as springboards to the Ivy League and other elite colleges. As salaries of college presidents have risen to new heights, compensation for their prep school counterparts has quietly surged in kind, a Globe survey has found.
Among leaders of more than 30 top private high schools in New England, the median pay package was nearly $450,000 in 2012, a 23 percent climb from 2009, according to complete data from the most recent tax filings. Some 2013 figures are also available.
The head of Belmont Hill School, a private boys’ school with about 440 students, received $700,000 in compensation in 2013, according to the school’s latest tax filings. The head of Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge received $627,000, while the leaders of Deerfield Academy in Western Massachusetts, Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, and St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire were each paid more than $500,000.
At Noble and Greenough, a Dedham prep school with just over 600 students, head of school Robert Henderson Jr. received nearly $1.3 million in salary and compensation in 2012 — an amount that included what a school official said was a one-time only payment.
The $1.3 million topped the salary of any college president in Massachusetts in 2012 save one.
The private school salaries are available in public tax filings. Most schools declined to respond to Globe queries on their amounts, but private school groups defended the rising salaries as commensurate with a difficult job description.
“The role of head of school is one that requires one’s body, mind, and soul,” said Claire Leheny, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New England. “It’s a job that has a lot of scrutiny and a lot of responsibility.”
High salaries for college presidents and other heads of nonprofits have come under criticism in recent years as running counter to the institutions’ charitable mission, and have sparked debate over whether they are misusing their tax-exempt status.
Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, the country’s largest independent evaluator for charities and nonprofits, said the salary increase among private school leaders was striking.
“Twenty percent is pretty significant, I think,” Miniutti said. Leaders of nonprofits typically receive yearly raises of 2 to 3 percent, she said.
With rare exceptions, salaries for the leaders of private high schools have drawn little public notice. But the trend is the same, specialists say. Nationally, the median salary for heads of independent schools is $230,000, up more than 15 percent from 2011, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.
In New England, which boasts a wealth of top-tier private schools, compensation has climbed even faster. A number of headmasters saw their pay jump by $100,000 in past years. They include Deerfield’s Margarita Curtis, who received $581,000 in 2013 vs. $469,000 in 2010.
Rodgin Cohen, president of the school’s board of trustees, said Curtis has earned her salary with an “extraordinary” job performance.
David Thiel, a school spokesman, said the role of headmaster is increasingly complex, with responsibilities that range from teaching to courting deep-pocketed donors.
“It takes a rare talent to fill some of those roles,” Thiel said.
At the most elite schools, which have sizable endowments, highly competitive admissions, and annual tuition that can top $40,000, the position is comparable to a college presidency, specialists say. And as prep schools compete for talented leaders, they look to their peers as benchmarks for competitive packages.
In 2012, the latest available figures for Milton Academy, the head of school, Theodorick Bland, received $658,000, the third consecutive year his compensation topped $600,000.
At Noble and Greenough, spokeswoman Heather Sullivan said her school’s nearly $1.3 million total in 2012 was an anomaly caused by a one-time lump sum payment of $610,000 in deferred compensation that “will not be repeated.” Henderson receives $364,000 in salary and $215,000 in other compensation, including housing and health benefits, she said.
Under federal guidelines, nonprofits are urged to keep a close watch on salaries, making sure they comply with industry norms and are justified by performance.
Among the prep schools surveyed, some annual pay increases were inflated by outgoing leaders who received hefty amounts of deferred compensation in their final year. At the same time, salaries at some schools sharply declined in certain years, usually after the departure of a veteran administrator whose salary had risen over time.
Myra McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools said school leaders in New England are paid more than the national average. In the 2013-2014 school year, the median salary in New England was $243,000, slightly higher than the national median. The totals do not include benefits or deferred compensation, McGovern said.
McGovern speculated that many veteran administrators kept their jobs after the recession, wary of looking for new positions, causing salaries to remain high.
Some two-thirds of head of schools nationally plan to retire or leave their school by 2019, the group found in a 2009 survey, but only 22 percent of administrators expressed interest in becoming headmaster.
At Phillips Academy in Andover, students spoke of how school leaders can play a major role in teenagers’ lives.
Sara Luzuriaga, a rising senior who edits the campus newspaper, said head of school John Palfrey, who made $235,000 in 2012, had given her advice when she was reporting difficult stories. And senior Pranav Tadikonda said Palfrey’s digital focus sparked his own interest in Web development and computer science.
“I don’t know if I’m in a position to say whether [the salary’s] worth it,” Tadikonda said. “But Mr. Palfrey has done everything and more than I expected out of a head of school.”
DATA: 990 tax returns, Globe reporting
*Complete salary data were available from 2009 to 2012, but a few of the prep schools reported 2013 salary figures early.