Hickey's skill During budget battle, school board got a lesson in what it must look for in successor.

June 23, 1998

THIS YEAR'S budget battle in Howard County again showed school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's skill as a political operative.

For instance, Dr. Hickey disapproved of how some teachers involved students in the budget fight by giving them extra credit if they joined the protest. But he voiced his displeasure after the desired effect was achieved by having children beg the County Council for more school money.

This tactic worked. So did public discussion of draconian cuts -- unlikely to be approved by the school board -- to reduce spending to the level recommended by County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

The school board would have earned the public's wrath had it imposed fees on students playing sports or participating in other extracurricular activities. Just talking about such possibilities was enough to stir the indignation of parents. But their anger was directed at Mr. Ecker.

He and Dr. Hickey have sparred often during the superintendent's 14 years on the job. Mr. Ecker, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, has been county executive since 1990.

Before that he was the assistant superintendent responsible for preparing the annual school system budget request.

Mr. Ecker's past budget disputes with Dr. Hickey occurred in the context of a poor economy. But Howard County is flush with revenue. The school system didn't get all it wanted, though the council improved Mr. Ecker's proposal, leading to an 8 percent spending increase.

When Dr. Hickey steps down in two years, it will be after 16 years at the helm. That's impressive in an era when most superintendents last one-third that long. It is also the same span of time his predecessor, M. Thomas Goedeke, held onto the job.

A search for a successor will begin this fall. Along with the other requisite academic and finance skills, the board must be on the lookout for someone with the political savvy to fight as effectively for schools as has Dr. Hickey.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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