Salary secrets in Howard County

November 20, 1992

There is little good to be said about the Howard County school board's decision to quietly raise Superintendent Michael Hickey's salary by 10 percent last June.

Even if Mr. Hickey deserved the increase -- which brings his annual pay to $109,106 -- the timing and manner in which it was granted shows a dumbfounding lack of sensitivity toward the public that the board serves.

School board members' belated attempts to make a case for Mr. Hickey's salary increase are shabby at best. They say the superintendent deserves the increase because it is in line with what other superintendents of similar stature make.

Moreover, when board members negotiated the raise, there was ample reason to believe Mr. Hickey might look elsewhere for employment.

By increasing his salary, school board members reasoned, they were able to secure a four-year contract with Mr. Hickey that keeps him happy and on board.

If these were good arguments, why weren't board members willing to state their case publicly in June when they took up the matter?

Instead, board members, operating in closed session, never sought to make the increase public. Now that the matter has been uncovered, officials argue that standard procedure has always been to include salary increases in the superintendent's office budget, where it is lumped with other staff salaries.

In the past, they say, it was left to enterprising reporters to ferret out that information. That excuse, however, presupposes that the public's right to know is contingent on how badly it wants the information.

We suspect that the board and Mr. Hickey were aware that public disclosure of the salary increase would prove embarrassing in light of the financial woes the school system has endured of late -- and of which Mr. Hickey has complained loud and long. Giving the superintendent a 10 percent raise is, as one teacher said, "a slap in the face" to other school employees, who received only a 2.5 percent increase this year.

School officials' handling of this situation will make it difficult for them to argue effectively against budget cuts in the pipeline for this year. By squandering the public's trust, the board and Mr. Hickey have alienated their own constituency on the eve of a budget-making season when they'll need public support the most.

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