In Howard County, where education is king, and many think school superintendent Michael E. Hickey is the power behind the throne, something new is in the wind.
There's a search for new ideas, more aggressive ways to keep all of Howard's vaunted schools equal in the public's mind -- but this time, Hickey and the elected school board aren't leading.
Now, members of the county council, the Columbia Association and a state delegate are taking the initiative for change in Howard's schools as Hickey prepares for retirement next year after 16 years at the helm.
"We just need to make sure there's equity between schools. All of us need to deal with this," said County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat who helped organize an unusual public meeting scheduled for tomorrow to discuss the issue, especially as it affects Co- lumbia's older schools. Parent leaders from county focus schools -- those with lagging performance scores -- are particularly encouraged to attend, Guzzone said.
Political meddling? Well-intentioned foolishness? Or early signs of a major change in how the county governs its proudest possession -- its highly touted school system? Opinions vary, and an undercurrent of tension is evident in school board members' lukewarm endorsements of the new efforts.
"I don't think, frankly, that the meeting Monday is totally a good idea," Hickey said. "I don't have any plans to participate, but I want to listen with interest to what is said."
Former County Councilman Charles C. Feaga witnessed the political muscle of school officials in May 1998, when they marshaled support from hundreds of school advocates after then-County Executive Charles I. Ecker dared not to fund the entire education budget request.
"Michael Hickey still has the strength to demand of the school board what he wants, and put enough fear in the public to go after the politicians," Feaga said recently.
Others think that with Hickey preparing to retire, big changes may be in the works.
"All of these things together are a sea change. You could have a completely different board, superintendent and a council that is more active in dealing with education," said state Del. Shane Pendergrass, a former county council member and school activist. "This really is an opportunity."
'Form some coalitions'
The Rev. Robert A. Turner, president of the African-American Coalition of Howard County, agrees that there's an opportunity -- if school and county officials don't get caught up in turf wars.
"If we form some coalitions, I think then we'll really be able to work toward making quality education something realized by all citizens," he said. "If it's a good idea, it's not as important who thought of it first."
The bottom line, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat and former county executive, is that "in one of the wealthiest counties in the country we must be able to do a better job in Columbia." Since improvements aren't coming fast enough, she said, the County Council should step in. "I'm glad they're doing it," she said.
Tomorrow's meeting, organized by council members, will be followed by others, said Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray and Guzzone, Democrats who represent parts of east Columbia. The purpose is to discuss new ways of stopping or reversing a trend that has seen some older, mostly Columbia schools lose public favor -- and students -- because of image problems and demographic changes.
All five council members plan to attend, as does County Executive James N. Robey.
New legislation proposed
The trend is clear. Eight older Columbia elementary schools have seen a sharp drop in white enrollments over the past decade, and black enrollments have risen. The result has concentrated nearly half the county's African-American students in these schools, which also have lower standardized test scores, higher poverty rates and more transient and non-English speaking students.
This year, a group of Columbia parents got permission to hire their own bus to bring their children to the newer Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton, instead of allowing them to attend Wilde Lake Middle in Columbia. The parents said the issue isn't race -- Wilde Lake is more diverse -- but what they see as academic and other problems in the school.
Equally worried about Columbia's schools, the Columbia Council -- an elected citizens group that normally oversees recreational facilities and public area maintenance in the planned town -- is proposing for the first time to donate $100,000 to help county schools. The council also created a task force to look into equity issues.
And a state delegate is proposing legislation under which school board members would be elected by councilmanic district instead of countywide, though board members strongly oppose the idea.
"I think there's tension because most people are very concerned about schools," said Del. Frank S. Turner, the East Columbia Democrat behind the measure. "We all want to see them running as best we can."
Although his bill isn't directly related to current worries over school image and racial balance, Turner says it all boils down to accountability and representation. It's important, he says "to have someone there -- someone they can look to or identify with who lives in their community."
None of the five current board members lives in the densely populated area east of Route 29, though two live west of the highway in Columbia.
An adversarial system
But Ecker, the former county executive, said the tension comes mainly from the adversarial system created by state law that pits an autonomous school board against a county government that must pay the bills. That system should be changed, Ecker said, to consolidate the power in one place. Either give the school board the power to levy taxes for its budget, or let the county executive control the board by appointing the members. "We need one person where you can point the finger," he said.
Some people -- like Council Chairman Gray -- are pointing the finger at school officials, saying they haven't done enough to keep some older schools on a par with newer ones in higher income areas.
And although Hickey and board members have been diplomatic in their public statements about the outside advice -- welcoming more public involvement -- the friction isn't far below the surface.
"We welcome greater interest in the school system and in the challenges we face from politicians and community members alike if their interest in finding solutions is genuine," said board vice chairman Stephen C. Bounds.
A comprehensive solution
Hickey chalks up the recent criticism to public concern, and said the problems affecting schools go beyond anything the school system can do alone.
"I'm personally taking the high road and the positive view of saying there really does have to be a more comprehensive solution than what the schools themselves are capable of doing," Hickey said. "Somehow or another, we need to have discussions about the impact of concentrations of poverty in certain school areas and the linkage between that and low performance on the part of some schools."
Board member and retired teacher Jane B. Schuchardt complained that school officials haven't been included in the current efforts.
"I just don't want politics and the County Council to come up with the idea that they need to run the school board, because that's not their job," she said.
And Schuchardt doubts there is much the school system can do about the reputation of certain schools.
"You can't make people live where they don't want to live," she said. "I don't know how you're going to change that."
Del. Turner, who happily helped award Wilde Lake High School Principal Roger Plunkett $25,000 for his efforts in turning that school's image from questionable to excellent, rejected board member Sandra French's criticism that he failed to consult them.
"I don't work for her. I work for the people of my district. I find that statement very arrogant," he said.
Some play down conflicts
Others said they were shocked to learn that school officials never informed Robey ahead of time that plans for a general redrawing of school district boundary lines had changed because of plans to reduce class sizes in first and second grades.
"That was unbelievable," Pendergrass said.
Still others, like Republican state Sens. Martin G. Madden and Christopher J. McCabe, play down the conflicts in favor of how they prefer to think about Howard's schools.
"I think it's important for us to keep foremost in mind that we have a great school system in Howard County, an outstanding superintendent, and a very professional board that have approached things in a very fair and county-wide manner," Madden said.
For those who worry that the political power of school advocates is too strong in Howard, Madden has an answer:
"If having too much of our way is the reason for having the No. 1-ranked school system in the state -- then no harm done."
Staff writer Erika D. Peterman contributed to this article.
Howard County officials invite the public to a meeting at 6 p.m. tomorrow in the George Howard government building in Ellicott City to discuss Columbia schools and related issues. The meeting is expected to last until 7: 30 p.m.