Robert R. “Bud” Spillane, the forceful Fairfax County school superintendent who during a 12-year tenure helped lift the county’s schools into the nation’s top ranks, died July 18, in a hospital in Boston. He was 80, and lived in Pawcatuck, Conn.
Dr. Spillane had just undergone successful heart valve replacement surgery, said his son-in-law, Brian Orsi, but died of pulmonary disease.
Between 1985 and 1997, Dr. Spillane headed the Fairfax schools, boosting student performance, expanding academic offerings and improving management.
On his watch, the proportion of students going on to college went from 79 percent to 84 percent, according to the school system.
The proportion of high school students taking AP courses went from 13 percent to 21 percent. And the proportion of high school students enrolled in upper-level math classes increased from 17 percent to 50 percent.
He also started night classes for immigrant students who were trying to work and go to school.
“What he saw as his job was to keep the school system focused on the children, the teachers and the classroom,” longtime Fairfax school board member Jane Strauss said. “And he did that.
“He also came at a time when the revenue for schools was increasing,” she said. “We were seeing yearly increases. It was at a time when . . . there was rapid growth. . . . So there were opportunities to do things for schools, where the opportunities had not been there before.”
Dr. Spillane came to Fairfax in 1985 from Boston, where he is credited, as superintendent, with rescuing that city’s troubled school system, which had been in turmoil over court-ordered busing for school desegregation.
He quickly became known as the “velvet hammer.” During his first two months on the job in Boston, he laid off 750 teachers and closed 27 schools.
“He’s no patsy,” Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn (D) said at the time.
Dr. Spillane said, it “was just a question of doing what everybody knew had to be done, plowing through and over the politics.”
Dr. Spillane was well known in education circles when he came to Fairfax County, The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews wrote in a 2005 book, “Supertest,” co-authored with Ian Hill.
“The school board in Fairfax County . . . felt lucky to get him, even when he started to shake things up,” Mathews and Hill wrote.
“We said we wanted a superintendent who could walk on water,” school board Chairman Mary B. Collier said when Spillane was picked. “We found a superintendent who can work miracles.”
Dr. Spillane was the son of a Lowell, Mass., aircraft factory worker.
He started out as a sixth-grade teacher in 1956, rising rapidly to become an elementary school principal at 25 and a superintendent at 31.
He was dapper and congenial, but could be abrasive, dismissive and impatient.
“It’s better to apologize than to seek permission,” he said after the Fairfax County School Board declined to renew his contract in 1997. “The rules of my game are that, in order to get their attention, you often have to do something outrageous.
“I achieved more as a superintendent by being aggressive than I did by being passive,” he said. “In many cases we had a board that I know would not have moved unless they were pushed.”
Sometimes that backfired.
The late Laura I. McDowall, a school board member who helped hire Dr. Spillane but later clashed with him, said when he stepped down: “He discredited his critics, rather than try to win us over. Those of us who were critics just had to take his abuse. . . . It was divisive. It was distracting.
“You were either for Bud, or you were against Bud,” she said.
Dr. Spillane pushed hard for more money for his schools, seeking annual spending increases of 10 percent, 15 percent and 18 percent from the county board of supervisors. He got solid increases during the booming 1980s but, in later years critics, called his requests excessive.
Before coming to Fairfax, Dr. Spillane had worked as an educator, in addition to Boston, at several places in New York and New Jersey.
“My wife has some sense of humor to let us move 11 times in 27 years of marriage,” he said in 1985. “The family is really looking forward to the easier winters.”
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Geraldine Shea Spillane, of Pawcatuck; children, Patricia McGrath, of New York City; Robert Spillane Jr., of Ormond Beach, Fla.; Kathleen Orsi, of Oak Hill, Va.; and Maura Francis, of South Riding, Va.