The careers of some D.C. school employees are notable for their longevity -- going all the way back to the Eisenhower administration. And then there is the meteoric passage of Robert C. Rice.
Hired in March 2003 as the District's assistant superintendent for standards, curriculum and professional development, Rice was elevated to acting chief academic officer about five months later. In April, the D.C. Board of Education named him interim superintendent, putting the native Iowan in charge of a public education system with 12,000 employees and 64,000 students.
On Wednesday, Rice will turn over the reins to Clifford B. Janey, who was hired last month as the fifth permanent superintendent in nine years. Janey has not announced whom he will appoint to the school system's top positions.
Rice, 65, said he will stay on if asked. "I'm expecting to show up and do whatever I can to have a smooth transition with the superintendent and the board," he said in a telephone interview.
Rice never believed that he would be interim superintendent for more than five months. "When I took this thing, I thought it might be a month or two months," he said. When the D.C. Board of Education voted to appoint Janey on Aug. 11, its members stood in unison to applaud Rice for staying the course.
But what Rice will probably be most remembered for was one of his least-expected decisions. On Sept. 1, the first day of class, Rice fired the principal at Eastern Senior High School and two other officials after the school failed to open because schedules of classes and room assignments hadn't been completed. The firings sent a jolt through a school system where employees are rarely terminated, much less without prior warning.
"The issues were so egregious that you can't tolerate that that will happen a second time," Rice said, adding that academic and operational problems at the Northeast Washington school had become increasingly apparent.
Solidly built, and with an expression best described as stoic, Rice won over school board members and even grizzled education veterans with his dry sense of humor and his willingness to make tough decisions.
Rice, who is white, has led a school system that has not had a white permanent superintendent since William R. Manning was dismissed in 1969. About 84 percent of the District's public school students are African American.
"I can honestly tell you that has never crossed my mind," Rice said about being a white man in charge of a predominantly black educational system. "It's about people, human beings, working to raise the achievement level of students. Color and religion really don't make any difference to me. I've never felt alienated, and I sure hope I never alienated anybody because of the color of my skin."
The son of a farmer and a grade school teacher, Rice grew up in Cedar Falls and graduated from the University of Northern Iowa there. He holds a doctorate from Iowa State University.
Rice was superintendent in Estherville, Iowa, Luling, La., and Anne Arundel County and a top official in the Maryland State Department of Education. He was laid off from a job at the Council for Basic Education, a group that helps school districts raise academic standards, before taking the job in the District.
Rice's first piece of advice for Janey is to solve what he calls "the bane of instability." Since Superintendent Franklin L. Smith was ousted in 1996, three successors -- Julius W. Becton Jr., Arlene Ackerman and Paul L. Vance -- have come and gone.
"The instability has just crippled us," Rice said. "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."