Chicken Little at school headquarters Superintendent Hickey must get more serious about cutting costs.

January 18, 1996

IN HIS BUDGET MESSAGE this month, Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey decried Chicken Littles who would predict a dire future for the school system if its financial needs are not met.

So why is Dr. Hickey donning feathers and scratching around the barnyard? His suggestion that children might have to pony up to ride school buses is as bizarre a scare tactic as they come. The day we see fare boxes on public school buses is the day Howard builds another open-space classroom.

Dr. Hickey is one of the more respected school leaders in the state. One former superintendent calls him the only national-caliber superintendent Maryland has. Yet one rarely gets the impression that Dr. Hickey has gotten the message about public institutions' need to change how they do business. The superintendent and school board members are congratulating themselves because their request for $241.9 million is only $6.6 million more than last year, not including staff raises, which would be millions more. Indeed, layoff notices went out to 15 central staffers in November, but most will be rehired at new schools next fall. Dr. Hickey said he built the budget on projections from the State Board of Education calling for a 9 percent boost in state funds, which begs the question, what are these people smoking?

Dr. Hickey, look around. Johns Hopkins laid off 250 people from its Applied Physics Lab. Federal government downsizing will impact thousands more countians who ride the parkway to Washington. Doing the job with fewer hands is a way of life, not a sacrifice, these days.

It doesn't help the education department's case that two people who once toiled for it, County Executive Charles I. Ecker and County Council Chairman Darrel Drown, maintain that the system is not driven to cut costs. Dr. Hickey's budget requests have done little to dissuade that view, once you toss out the 1.7 percent increase he sought in fiscal year 1993. His requests in other years: 11.8 percent ('92), 8.1 percent ('94), 4.3 percent ('95), 5.6 percent ('96), and the current 5.1 percent.

With booming enrollment, Howard is in a bind. But Dr. Hickey must show greater commitment to making changes that save dollars, lest state and county politicians feel more emboldened to do the managing for him.

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