“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
-Robert "Bud" Spillane
Something hanging on the wall of Spillane’s office always looked out of place—more suited for the office of a construction company CEO than the leader of the nation’s 10th largest school system: a hammer with its head covered in brown velvet.
It was a memento from his days as superintendent of Boston Public Schools, where he served before coming to Fairfax and had earned the nickname “velvet hammer” after only two months in office for having closed 27 schools and laid off 750 employees. Spillane wore the nickname as a badge of honor.
“It means you can do some difficult things with some class and style,” he said when he arrived in Fairfax in 1985.
Spillane began his career as a sixth grade teacher in 1956 at the age of 22, before quickly moving into administration, becoming a principal at the age of 25 and a superintendent by the age of 32.
When he took the job leading Boston Public Schools, he inherited a system in disarray that was still recovering from the debates over court-ordered busing that accompanied desegregation. The system lacked budgeting procedures, payroll systems, promotional standards and, most importantly, a citywide curriculum—all of which he implemented during his three-and-a-half year tenure.
By the time he arrived in Fairfax in 1985, Spillane was viewed as someone who could walk on water and was later described by the Washington Post as “a celebrity in a profession known for faceless bureaucrats, a superintendent who wore custom-made shirts, traveled around the world to discuss public education and made his ideas sound exciting no matter whom he was addressing.”
At his introductory press conference, Spillane proclaimed that his goal was for Fairfax to “become a basis for national leadership in public education.” And during his 12 year tenure, he made Fairfax County into the national leader that he envisioned. In the process he won the 1995 awards for Virginia Superintendent of the Year and National Superintendent of the Year.
During his tenure with FCPS:
- a seventh period was added to the high school day;
- more graduates attended college (increasing from 79 to 84 percent);
- more students enrolled in advanced placement courses (increasing from 13 to 21 percent);
- more than two-thirds of seniors earned advanced studies diplomas, doubling the number from when he took office;
- the number of students taking middle school algebra tripled (increasing from 17 to 50 percent);
- night classes were implemented for immigrant students who worked during the day;
- magnet schools were opened, including Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences;
- new course offerings were introduced, including arts, science and technology courses as well as immersion courses in French, German, Japanese and Spanish;
- pupil-teacher ratios were lowered in elementary schools with large numbers of poor children;
- SAT scores rose and remained much higher than the state and national averages; and
- by the time he left office, Expansion Management magazine (which businesses looked to for advice on relocating) ranked Fairfax in the top 3 percent of U.S. public school systems.
Despite these many achievements, new issues began to emerge as the county diversified during his tenure. The minority achievement gap began to grow, with SAT scores of black students remaining stagnant and the scores of Hispanic students dropping.
And foreshadowing debates of the current school board, several of Spillane's most widely publicized proposals failed, including plans for a merit pay system for teachers, full-day kindergarten for schools with high levels of poverty, and full-day Mondays for elementary schools. Some attributed the failure of these plans to his hard-charging leadership style.
In his farewell speech to community leaders in 1997, he reflected on his tenure: "I was never perfect," he said. "But then, a lot of other people aren't perfect, either."
But if anyone ever doubted Spillane’s priorities, they just had to remember his familiar incantation referring to student academic achievement: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
As one of the many students whose life Spillane impacted, I offer my sincere thanks for providing me and so many of my peers with one of the best public educations this nation could offer.
We will always remember you.