School & District Management

Former Fairfax, Va., and Boston Superintendent Dies at Age 80

By Corey Mitchell — July 20, 2015 2 min read
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Robert “Bud” Spillane, a former superintendent for the school districts in Fairfax County, Va., and Boston, has died.

Spillane, who had a reputation as a tough yet fair leader, died Saturday at a Boston hospital of complications from pulmonary disease. He was 80.

During his four-year tenure in Boston from 1981 to 1985, Spillane was credited with resuscitating a troubled school system beset by racial problems and declining enrollment, and straining under a court-ordered desegregation plan.

And that was just the start of the difficulties he encountered.

An Education Week profile of Spillane from September 1981 found that during his first six weeks on the job in Boston he “had to contend with a disgruntled teacher workforce, an indifferent community, administrative mismanagement, severe economic constraints, and a school committee tainted by corruption.” During his first two months on the job, Spillane cut hundreds of teaching jobs and closed dozens of schools. At the time, the Boston Globe quoted him as saying it “was just a question of doing what everybody knew had to be done, plowing through and over the politics.”

Spillane left Boston for Fairfax, which was then the nation’s 10th largest district. The then-school board chairwoman told Education Week that the panel picked him for the job because of his “openness and accessibility, his absolute integrity, his strong management skills, and his creativity in building public support, financial as well as philosophical, for public education.”

Spillane led the Fairfax schools until 1997, “boosting student performance, expanding academic offerings and improving management,” the Washington Post reported.

He clashed with union members there over a controversial teacher merit-pay plan in the early 1990s and worked to curb steroid use among high school athletes in the late 1980s.

Disagreements with school board members over decision-making ultimately led them not to renew his contract.

The Post reported that Spillane began his career as a 6th-grade teacher in the mid-1950s, rising rapidly to become an elementary school principal at 25 and a superintendent at 31.

The son of an aircraft factory worker, Spillane was well-known and respected in education circles. A 1988 Education Week report explored rumors that he was among Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ handful of potential picks for education secretary.

Spillane dismissed the talk as “people playing mischief” but added that he would “consider” the job if formally offered.

Before his stints in Boston and Fairfax County, he worked as a superintendent in districts in New York and New Jersey and served as deputy commissioner of education for the New York state department of education.

During the last decade of his career, Spillane also work as a regional education officer for Europe in the U.S. Department of State’s office of overseas schools and director of the education center for Naval Analyses Corp., a nonprofit military research firm in Alexandria, Va.

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Photo Credit: Handout

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.