Ecker vs. Hickey HOWARD COUNTY

November 22, 1993

Just how serious is the disagreement between Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Superintendent Michael E. Hickey over the costs of school construction?

Not very. The two leaders are simply framing the debate over the county's indebtedness, a healthy part of the political process. Each is appealing to slightly different constituencies. No one should be surprised when the rhetoric becomes a little heated.

In at least one sense, Dr. Hickey appears to have the advantage. Howard's schools are the crown jewel of the county. They recently scored tops in the Maryland school performance exams for the fourth year running. All political factions in the community -- business, residential, elderly, rich, poor -- benefit from the impressive results the system has racked up.

Dr. Hickey feels that the system has gone about as far as it can in cutting school construction costs, coming close to Mr. Ecker's goal of reducing expenditures by at least 10 percent. To shave costs further invites criticism that the county is demanding that new schools be built on the cheap and old schools be allowed to languish in deterioration. Other cost-shaving alternatives that have been floated -- year-round schools, increased class size, double shifts -- appear wildly unpopular.

Mr. Ecker's adamant stance appears to be one inspired mainly by the business community.

In a recent white paper from the county's Chamber of Commerce, business leaders appear to be uncertain of what they really want, however: draconian measures to cut costs or a school system that is top of the line. Both goals probably cannot be achieved simultaneously.

Mr. Ecker has the task of convincing the community that further capital budget cuts are possible without damaging the schools. Indeed, his former role as the school system's budget officer gives considerable weight to his assertions that the reductions can be made without impairing education.

But Mr. Ecker also has a record as county executive, a position he wants again come next year's election. And in that role, he has been more than a little deferential toward the business community.

If that is driving his rhetoric, he will have a tough time selling his ideas to a community that so values what it is getting from its schools.

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