Hickey breaks even in contest of nerves with board

January 31, 1995|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey played his hand until the last minute as a contender for the superintendent's job in a 77,000-student North Carolina school system. In the end, he only broke even.

He has the promise of a new four-year contract -- something he says he eventually would have won anyway -- and gets to keep a retirement benefit package that would have been cut dramatically had he left for Wake County, N.C., the system that serves Raleigh.

But the 56-year-old educator, who on Friday took himself out of the running for the Wake County job, has yet to win a raise, better benefits or new perquisites in his war of nerves with the Howard County school board. The board is conducting his semiannual evaluation as a prelude to any salary increase or other upgrades in the superintendent's compensation package.

Dr. Hickey, who makes $115,750 this year, has said retirement benefits were a factor in his decision to stay for at least another four-year term. He also spoke of the "deep roots" he and his wife, Nichole, established during his 11-year tenure in Howard. Had he left, the superintendent would have taken home roughly $16,700 a year after turning 62 under the state pension system's complex formula for school system employees.

But if he stays in Howard County until he is eligible for retirement six years from now, he stands to receive roughly $31,300 a year, based on 3 percent average annual pay increases over that period.

The state's formula determines a yearly pension based on employees' years of service and last three consecutive years' salaries.

Dr. Hickey became a finalist for the top job in Wake County months after the Howard County school board failed to offer him another contract, even though he told members he wanted to stay in Howard for another four years.

The school board extended a contract offer to Dr. Hickey on Jan. 12, the night before he was to meet with Wake County school employees and parents, although it had not finished his annual evaluation.

"I wasn't trying to browbeat the school system into getting a another contract. I felt I would get one eventually," Dr. Hickey said yesterday. "The Wake County board made an offer that was really appealing. I wouldn't have gone through with the process had I not planned on seriously considering it. For me to have gone down on false pretenses would have been totally wrong."

On Saturday -- the day after Dr. Hickey took himself out of consideration -- Wake County school officials offered the job to -- the other finalist, Jim Surratt of Plano, Texas. Dr. Surratt, head of a 37,000-student suburban Dallas school system, accepted the offer the next day.

Howard County community leaders and parents generally were happy that Dr. Hickey decided to stay.

"I think it's good he has made a decision," said Lynn Benton, president of the Howard County PTA Council. "The uncertainty has been a distraction. Hopefully, now the focus can return to the school system."

James Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association, noted that Dr. Hickey's decision comes at a crucial time for a school system facing potential cuts from county and state governments in its operating and capital budgets.

"Dr. Hickey has the experience to deal with those budget problems and, as a result, the school system, including our students and employees, should benefit," he said.

School board members say they will continue with their annual evaluation process of Dr. Hickey, whose third four-year appointment expires in June 1996.

"We both are interested in seeing excellent education for the children in Howard County," said Stephen Bounds, a newly elected board member who in his campaign said the county should study whether Dr. Hickey is the best person for the job. "He has impressed me with having an open mind and willingness to listen to different points of views. I'm looking forward to his service during my entire term on the board."

Other board members said they had expected that Dr. Hickey would remain in Howard County.

"All along, I thought we are the best school system around. He has led us to be the No. 1 system," said Susan Cook, school board chairwoman. "How can he give that up?"

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