School Board Finds the Tables Turned

COMMENT

January 22, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

Members of the Howard County Board of Education have boxed themselves into a dangerous corner.

The last election produced two new members whose successful campaigns fostered the perception that they were not fully behind school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

The most vocal critic, Stephen Bounds, advocated a national search to find a more suitable head of schools. And Karen Campbell, who was seeking to return to the board after stepping down, offered herself as an expert on headhunting.

Such talk made for appealing election-year strategy because it made it appear that Mr. Bounds and Ms. Campbell would be strong watchdogs of the school system and its chief executive. But at best, it was campaign hyperbole; at worst, it was dishonest. No specific criticisms were ever leveled against Dr. Hickey, although he was clearly being put in the hot seat.

The superintendent, in fact, may have inadvertently triggered his own predicament, suggesting a year earlier that he might be ready to move on at the end of his contract in 1996.

But now, with barely two public meetings under its belt since the November election, and with an evaluation of the superintendent just under way, the school board has been jolted by the news that Dr. Hickey, after 11 years in Howard, is being courted for another job.

The Wake County school system, which includes Raleigh, N.C., and its suburbs, has chosen Dr. Hickey as one of two finalists for superintendent of its 77,000-student system. He was scheduled to meet with parents, teachers and students there this weekend.

Dr. Hickey says he would like to stay in Howard, but without a contract from the board, he must consider other options. In doing so, he has successfully turned the heat on the board, which now confronts the possibility of losing a superintendent who has widespread support and an admirable record of achievement.

So, while Dr. Hickey was being pursued by ardent suitors last week, school board members were squirming to come up with a response to this potential mess. As for Mr. Bounds, he was acting like a man uncomfortable in his new suit.

Calling himself "naive" for first suggesting it, Mr. Bounds said a national search, which could cost the system $80,000, seems too expensive now that he is on the board. But he refused to rule it out, saying it should only be considered if board members are convinced there should be a change at the top.

Such fence-straddling is unlikely to reassure Dr. Hickey.

The current superintendent in Wake County earns $115,000 a year, equal to Dr. Hickey's salary in Howard. But consultants have told the board in Raleigh that they will have to go higher to get an administrator of the caliber they desire.

Raleigh's cost of living competes favorably with the Baltimore-Washington corridor. And the Wake County system is more than twice the size of Howard's, with many more of the urban problems that seem to intrigue Dr. Hickey.

Ms. Campbell, in the meantime, said she never heard any "rabid criticism" of Dr. Hickey during the campaign and since then has only heard supportive comments, particularly from the business community.

"I believe Mike has done precisely what the original board hired him to do," she said. "And done it very well." She particularly praised his efforts at decentralizing some schools, involving the community in long-term planning and improving human relations throughout the system.

Whether such comments will convince Dr. Hickey to stay is BTC another matter. School board members say they will not rush their evaluation of the superintendent, which will take several weeks to complete. And as of this writing, the North Carolina system has yet to make a formal offer to Dr. Hickey.

But replacing a superintendent is tricky business, and many jurisdictions have embarked on the task only to deeply regret their choice.

Radical change in Howard County may not be the answer, not while the system faces unprecidented growth and an uncertain financial future. More importantly, school board members will find themselves hard pressed to explain why they let go of an administrator who gets such high marks from the community. But the school board may not have left itself many options.

Dr. Hickey may find the hand reaching out from North Carolina more appealing than the back of the hand he's getting from here.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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