Hickey rules out political aspirations Schools chief rallied for budget, but won't enter arena

'Least favorite part'

As 'u retirement looms, search will begin for replacement

June 07, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey emerged from the world of school board meetings and curriculum planning sessions into the limelight of the volatile political arena as he led the recent fight for higher school spending.

In the process, the 60-year-old Hickey rallied both political and popular support in a way that showed him to be one of the county's most influential leaders. More than 800 people attended a public hearing on the budget, and County Council members scrambled for days to come up with a figure that was acceptable to school supporters in an election year.

The council eventually gave the schools $3.46 million more than the recommendation of outgoing County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Though the figure fell nearly $6 million short of what Hickey had wanted, it marked the first restoration by the council in four years.

Hickey has been characterized by some in the community as the winner in this battle, but he declines the honor, saying, "I think in some ways everybody was a loser in this."

In his 14th year as superintendent and two years from retirement -- the school board is to begin the search for his replacement this fall -- Hickey reflected last week with The Sun about recent events and what they say about the state of the school system, both educationally and politically.

Politics definitely did come up [in the budget process]. Does this perhaps lay the groundwork for increased politicization of the budget process?

I hope not, I really hope that it doesn't. But I knew that this year, with the kind of election year it was going to be, with two Republicans competing for [Ecker's] office and then Chuck running the underdog campaign against [gubernatorial candidate Ellen R.] Sauerbrey -- it was going to be a very contentious process. I think [the election year] really did play against us in that Chuck's whole budget strategy, instead of being a Howard County strategy, was a statewide strategy intended to look at the issues that would have appeal and perhaps convey some meaning and some votes in the hinterlands, where he's less well-known. So I think that that really cast the die.

Your job description must have felt a little out of whack in the last month or so. You probably felt more like a politician than an educator.

I don't consider myself a politician. I do understand the political process, but I think that I'm an educator and, to the extent that politics impacts on education, then I'll deal with politics, but it's my least favorite part. I can tell you one thing to show you how apolitical I am. I would never, never in my life run for an elected office on any level. That includes county executive especially. There were some people that were assuming maybe that's what all this [budget] stuff was about. It certainly was not. If they need any reassurance, all they have to do is talk to me -- or my wife. I have no interest in it.

What will you do when you retire at the end of the school year in two years?

I'm looking at several possibilities, I guess. One would be to go to the university [University of Maryland, College Park] and teach. I teach there now. But I'm also looking at some possibilities in the private sector. I've had some contacts and some conversations with some companies. It's something I'd also like very much to do. The third and least likely possibility would be to take a superintendent's position in another state.

And what advice would you give to your successor?

The first one is people come first. I think another piece of advice is don't be afraid to admit that you're wrong. I guess the other thing is we need to understand that we can always do better in what it is we're doing. The first time we get complacent, Carroll County and Frederick County will just blow right by us. It's been nice to be able to say, well, we're No. 1, but I know that No. 2 is less than two points behind us -- and has been, really. So the

competitive factor is sort of a fun element, and it's also a good economic development tool to be able to say we have the top school system in the state.

Getting back to the superintendent's role will that person, do you predict, be around for as long as you have? Is this person coming into a situation that is more volatile?

Well, look at the volatility here. We've built 18, 19 schools. By the time I leave we will have built and opened I think 21 schools, plus additions on a good many of them and renovations and all of that. So that has been a real challenge. Depending on how long he or she stays, someone will be dealing with the declining enrollment.

Schools will be closed?

At some point, yes, they will. The way I look at it is that they'll be available for other uses. I think, too, the drop-off when it occurs is not going to be precipitous. It's going to be gradual, particularly if we maintain the quality of life that we have here.

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