Until last weekend, Michael E. Hickey seemed set on continuing as Howard County school superintendent for another four years after his third term expires in June 1996.
Seven months ago, he made it clear to the school board that he wanted to help Howard's 36,000-student school system deal with rapid growth and other issues.
And this fall -- with talk of his reappointment imminent -- he started an extensive strategic planning process, involving thousands of school employees and county residents in charting a course for the school system into the next century.
So why is the 56-year-old educator one of two finalists for the top school post in North Carolina's Wake County, where this weekend he is to meet students, teachers, parents and other community members?
Simply put, "I'm not reappointed yet," Dr. Hickey said yesterday. "That really is the answer."
The Howard school board "has been somewhat circumspect, at least in public statements, about my reappointment," he said. "When an opportunity like this sort of drops in your lap, a person would be unwise not to take a close look at it."
News that he is under consideration for the Raleigh, N.C., job emerged Friday. It represents fortuitous timing and potential leverage for Dr. Hickey -- as it comes while the Howard board is conducting his annual evaluation and trying to decide whether he should be awarded a fourth term.
That decision is not expected to be made for several weeks. And even in light of Dr. Hickey's new job offer from Wake County, the board is sticking to its schedule.
In past years, Dr. Hickey's reappointment was a foregone conclusion and went smoothly. But this time, the outcome is less certain because of the election last fall of two new board members who were vocal during their campaigns about finding a new superintendent.
New school board member Stephen Bounds questioned whether Hickey was the best person for the job and advocated launching a search when the superintendent's term expires.
Karen Campbell, a one-time school board member who was elected last fall, campaigned on the grounds that she was a qualified candidate because she had had experience in a prior superintendent search. As Howard County PTA Council president in 1984, she was involved in the search that led to Dr. Hickey's hiring.
Search is costly
Since his election, Mr. Bounds has backed away from pushing for a superintendent search. He now says the cost of a nationwide search -- as much as $80,000 -- is too much.
"I don't believe we ought to waste that kind of money unless there's a real reason to do it," Mr. Bounds said. The board has yet to resolve whether it's needed because it is still in the middle of Dr. Hickey's annual evaluation, he said.
While Dr. Hickey says he originally did not seek the job in the 77,000-student Wake County system, his status as a finalist there could give him the upper hand as he negotiates a new contract. Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, for example, increased his salary by $15,000 when he negotiated for a new contract while he was a finalist for top school posts in Forth Worth, Texas, and Philadelphia.
Dr. Hickey denies that he is considering the job to give him leverage for a new contract. He said he began considering the job only because a Charlotte-based consultant persistently wooed him.
Regular job offers
This is not the first time that Dr. Hickey's been wooed from out of state. He said he regularly gets job offers but has declined them all.
About five years ago, he considered moving to Seattle, where he was a finalist for the superintendent's job. He eventually dropped out of consideration, he said, because the post would offer no new challenges. The Seattle offer did not come in a year when the school board was negotiating his reappointment.
Former school board member Dana Hanna, who did not seek re-election, said he fears the Howard board's failure to give Dr. Hickey open assurance that he can serve a fourth term may be pushing him to leave for the Wake County job.
"Why is the board making him feel that his presence was not desirous?" he asked. "The board is not giving him the word [that it wants him to stay]. I would think that is what he's feeling right now. It would behoove the board to give a clear signal whether his continuance was desired or not and find out whether he wanted to stay."
Mr. Hanna said he would tell Dr. Hickey "point blank -- call Wake and tell them to forget it. Don't bother."
But school board member Linda Johnston said the board's failure so far to give Dr. Hickey firm reassurances does not mean he's unappreciated here.
No 'negative connotation'
It does not carry "any negative connotation about Mike staying with us," she said. "We were just going on the usual way of evaluating him. We should feel quite good that we have a superintendent that is desirable to other school systems. That -- says what he's done for Howard County. I'd love for him to continue what he's done for us."
Two-term school board member Deborah Kendig likewise wants him to stay on. "It's probably in his best interest anyway to look so he knows what's going on, what his possibilities are," she said.
The majority of current school board members said his finalist status in Wake County would have no bearing on the timing of their decision about whether Dr. Hickey would continue as the schools superintendent.
All along, board members have said they plan to make that decision in several weeks.
In the past, the board has made its reappointment decision at least a year before a superintendent's contract expires, although state law requires six-months advance notice. Howard board members have said they consider it a good business practice to these decisions a year in advance.