Robert R. Spillane, who served four years as superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, from 1981 through 1985, died Saturday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital of complications from pulmonary disease. He was 80 and lived in Pawcatuck, Conn.
Dr. Spillane took over in the summer of 1981, while the school system was under a federal court desegregation order that required busing students. As he worked to implement changes, he became known for his candid, forceful comments.
During his tenure, he was credited with improving financial management, instituting a citywide curriculum and promotional standards, and forging alliances with the business community. He also tried to hasten US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s decision to return control of the schools to the School Committee.
“We have a management system working with strong teams of teachers, headmasters, principals, and deputy superintendents,” Dr. Spillane told the Globe in 1985 when he announced he was leaving to take the helm of the school system in Fairfax County, Va. “We have new curriculum in every subject in every grade level. . . . We have testing and performance evaluation. Now is the time, from my perspective, to continue on.”
Referring to the challenges Dr. Spillane had faced in Boston, Mary Collier, who was head of the Fairfax County School Board, told the Globe in 1985 that “we had announced that we were looking for a superintendent who could walk on water. What we found was a superintendent who could work miracles.”
Dr. Spillane lived in Lowell until he was 7 and then grew up in Hartford. He arrived in Boston after serving as New York State’s deputy commissioner for elementary, secondary, and continuing education. He previously had been superintendent of school districts in New York and New Jersey.
In Fairfax County, then the 10th largest school district in the nation, he was superintendent for a dozen years until the School Board voted to not renew his contract. Although the district consistently ranked near the top of the nation in test scores and by other measures, Dr. Spillane and School Board members at times were at odds over who would make final decisions.
After leaving the Fairfax County position, he was the regional education officer for Europe for the US State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools, and more recently a senior fellow at CNA Corp., a research organization in Virginia.
A service will be announced for Dr. Spillane, who leaves his wife, the former Geraldine Shea, of Pawcatuck, Conn.; and four children, Patricia McGrath of New York City, Robert Jr. of Ormond Beach, Fla., Kathleen Orsi of Fairfax, Va., and Maura Francis of South Riding, Va.; two brothers, Jack of Wayzata, Minn., and Joe of Ocala, Fla.; and eight grandchildren.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.