Clarification to This Article
The June 26 obituary of Robert Rice incompletely noted the circumstances of D.C. school Superintendent Clifford B. Janey's departure from his job in June 2007. Janey was forced out.

Robert Rice; Interim Chief Sought Change in Culture of D.C. Schools

Robert C. Rice won over officials, parents and some employees with his humor and willingness to make tough decisions.
Robert C. Rice won over officials, parents and some employees with his humor and willingness to make tough decisions. (File Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

Robert C. Rice, 69, an interim superintendent of D.C. public schools, past superintendent of Anne Arundel County schools and an executive in the Maryland State Department of Education, died June 21 of complications of lung transplant surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center's intensive care unit in Baltimore. He lived in Arnold.

Dr. Rice, who had been a school superintendent in Iowa and Louisiana, sent a shock wave through the District schools bureaucracy in 2004 when he quickly fired the principal of Eastern High School and two other officials after the school failed to open on time because of incomplete class schedules and room assignments.

"The issues were so egregious that you can't tolerate that that will happen a second time," he said.

A month earlier, he became exasperated and a touch irate when one-third of the top administrators failed to show up at a mandatory annual conference for principals.

"This is not acceptable," he said at the time, ordering his staff to take attendance and compared the no-shows and latecomers to truant and tardy students. "This is not a social occasion for administrators of this school district. . . . We are going to have to change the culture of this school district . . . and it's going to start with these people in this room."

Described as solidly built with a stoic countenance, Dr. Rice won over school board members, parents and some employees with his dry sense of humor and willingness to make tough decisions. His advice to incoming Superintendent Clifford B. Janey was to solve "the bane of instability. . . . The instability has just crippled us," he told a Washington Post reporter. "Everybody who comes in wants to make their mark. They jerk left and right. People say: 'That, too, shall pass, and I'll survive this.' And you never get a complete cultural change."

Dr. Rice, who was white, warned in a 2004 speech that the poor performance of D.C. schools had to end.

"As sure as bigotry and racism kept students from improving during our history, so an unfocused and ineffective instructional program serves to thwart personal and intellectual development and places genuine opportunity out of reach of most," he said. "Now is the time for no more excuses, no more justifications, no more rationalizations."

Hired in March 2003 as the District's assistant superintendent for standards, curriculum and professional development, Dr. Rice was elevated to acting chief academic officer about five months later. He was interim superintendent for five months in 2004 and resigned as special assistant to the superintendent when Janey quit in June 2007.

Dr. Rice was born in Nevinville, Iowa, and graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, where he also received a master's degree in educational administration in 1966. He received a doctoral degree in the same field from Iowa State University in 1977.

He taught and coached in elementary and high schools before leading school districts in Estherville, Iowa, and St. Charles Parish, La., where he oversaw the court-ordered desegregation of public schools. From 1984 to 1988, he was superintendent in Anne Arundel, where he received national attention when, despite community pressure, he defended allowing a 3-year-old with herpes to attend a preschool program.

Dr. Rice then joined the Maryland Education Department as an assistant state superintendent. Earlier, he also worked as vice president of First National Bank of Maryland and senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates high educational standards.

Dr. Rice also served as a commissioner on the Maryland State Ethics Commission. He was a past winner of the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo in Louisiana, after he caught a 436-pound blue marlin.

His marriage to Susannah L. Rice ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Betsy R. Rice of Arnold; two children from his first marriage, Dr. Robert Todd Rice of Queen Anne, Md., and Stephanie Rice Weaver of Greensboro, N.C.; two stepchildren, Mark Fleming and Rachael Fleming, both of Arnold; two brothers; and six grandchildren.

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