Robert R. (Bud) Spillane, who takes over July 1 as Fairfax County school superintendent, says the county should consider creating additional magnet schools for gifted students and should give principals more power over curriculum and programs.
In his first extensive interview since he was chosen to head the Washington area's largest school system, Spillane also said he will not rush to make his mark on a system often described as one of the best in the country.
"I don't think this is the kind of district that needs the Spillane touch or the Spillane image immediately," he said. "I don't have to do something to say it's mine."
Spillane, 50, appeared relaxed and answered questions without hesitation during a wide-ranging interview in his sparely furnished temporary office at the county's school administration building in Fairfax City. There was only one subject he said he would not discuss until he has been on the job for awhile: his vision for the future of Fairfax schools. "Yes," he quipped, "there is a future."
Since 1981, Spillane has been school superintendent in Boston, where he is credited with beginning to repair the city's troubled schools. Fairfax County hired him in February at a $90,000 annual salary, with use of a car, and a $15,000 payment for consulting work before he takes office.
Spillane said in the interview last week that the county should look at specialized high schools -- perhaps a Virginia Latin High or a school for the arts -- to nurture students with special talents. With state support, Fairfax this fall will open Northern Virginia's first high school for science and technology.
Fairfax school officials have discussed proposals for an arts high school in the past, but the county has chosen to run its programs for gifted students within each high school.
Spillane stopped short of endorsing an arts high school, saying, "I am not proposing we need to do this . . . but now is the time with a new person to open up the discussion."
Some Fairfax educators have expressed fears that the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Annandale will drain talented students and teachers from other schools. "Our goal isn't to make sure we have an equitably distributed talent pool," said Spillane. "Our goal is to exploit those talents in our youngsters."
Spillane said he wants to give principals more power over curriculum and programs, which have been dictated centrally since the early 1970s.
"If you unleash them," he said of the principals, "you will get a lot more from them." But, he added, "I'm not saying each school would have separate reading programs."
As one example, Spillane said that when he was a 25-year-old principal in the early 1960s, he found some teachers liked open classrooms but others wanted more structure. He said there is room for choice within schools, and perhaps more room for parents to choose where to send their children to school.
Spillane also favors greater autonomy for teachers. "You have to show great confidence in teachers," he said. "Teachers can't open a training manual the way you would a cookbook."
Spillane said Fairfax must be a leader in maintaining the quality of the nation's teaching cadre. Although he described entry exams for new teachers as merely "reassurance to the public . . . that at least they're literate," he said such tests are important for just that reason.
Spillane said Fairfax should explore innovative ways to get around the national teacher shortage predicted during the next decade. He suggested letting liberal arts graduates teach as interns without state certification, under supervision of a "super master teacher."
Spillane will succeed William J. Burkholder, 56, a veteran Fairfax educator who has been superintendent for three years. Spillane is concerned that the 10-member School Board that hired him will have at least two new members when he arrives. "Will the new people be supportive?" he asked. "They weren't involved in the process."
Spillane will move to a house in Oakton July 1 with his wife and two daughters who will attend Oakton High School. Two other children have graduated from college.
Spillane said the main attraction of the house is that it is only five miles from his office. But he said he also looked up Oakton High School's test scores and asked around about the principal once he and his wife had picked out the house.
"I'm a typical parent," he said.