Assessing Howard's schools chief

January 30, 1995

In a society increasingly focused on educational progress, school superintendents tend to be lightning rods for controversy. The nature of the job, if not their personalities, often puts them at loggerheads with the public and politicians in the communities they serve.

Unlike several of his counterparts, however, controversy and conflict don't appear particularly drawn to Michael E. Hickey, the soft-spoken superintendent of the Howard County public school system.

In that light, the recent controversy over Dr. Hickey's becoming a finalist for the superintendency of the Wake County, N.C., school system is at variance with his own history. Playing one jurisdiction off another is not a situation one expects Dr. Hickey to be in the middle of. That this bidding war is by his own design is even more intriguing.

In fact, the enigmatic qualities of Dr. Hickey are both his strength and weakness. Despite his long tenure as chief executive of a high-profile, top-ranked school system, Dr. Hickey has nurtured an image that has kept him largely out of the limelight.

By stressing community involvement -- one of the mandates handed him when he was hired -- he has in effect diffused his own power. At board meetings, he defers to underlings. When a problem confronts the system, he encourages outside input. His work to draft a long-range strategic plan, "Beyond the Year 2000," was a collaborative effort involving hundreds of parents, teachers and administrators.

The only major controversy directly linked to Dr. Hickey occurred two years ago when he unceremoniously transferred some 60 teachers and administrators, causing an uproar among staff and parents. But he quickly moved to make amends.

Even as they are considering a formal evaluation of Dr. Hickey's performance, school board members say they would like to see him stay on. Dr. Hickey has every right to be dissatisfied with their lukewarm endorsement. The board should be well aware of Dr. Hickey's accomplishments and his standing as an education leader.

Board members need to evaluate not just the individual, but what it is that they want in a superintendent. Perhaps someone more dynamic who would shake things up would engender more support and attention.

But, at this juncture, is that what Howard County needs?

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