Several small signs have popped up around neighborhoods in Columbia protesting a monetary gift the Howard County Board of Education gave to former Superintendent Michael E. Hickey on his way out of the district.
At least five yellowish signs stand about a foot tall at select intersections in the Dasher Green and Hickory Ridge neighborhoods. The signs, which appear to be computer-printed, read "Dr. Hickey Return the $16,000" and have icons of bags with dollar signs on them.
No one seems to know who created the signs, and no one has stepped forward claiming them, possibly because it is illegal to post signs on public property.
But the signs are in reference to a $16,000 "retirement gift" the five-member school board voted to award Hickey at the board's most recent - and Hickey's final - school board meeting June 20.
Reached at home Monday, Hickey said he had no intention of giving the money back.
Board member Stephen C. Bounds made the motion in June to make a $16,000 contribution to an existing annuity for Hickey - $1,000 for each year he was superintendent - and the vote passed 4 to 1. Laura Waters voted against it, "purely for budget reasons," she said.
"I just felt like we had just had such a fight with the [County] Council, and we had cut all those things," Waters said. "And I just felt like it wasn't a good decision."
Other board members said the money comes from a contingency fund in the budget for the fiscal year that ended Saturday, and, if it hadn't been allocated by Friday, would have been given back to the County Council.
"Any leftover money would not be allowed to be spent on education anyway," said Sandra H. French, board chairman. "And it was from [last] year's budget. It had nothing to do with the budget decisions we made for [this] year."
Board member Jane B. Schuchardt said there's nothing wrong with the gift.
"If we were depriving the children of something because of it, that would be different," she said.
French said the board anticipated some backlash for the gift and so made a point to give Hickey the money in open public session.
"We could've put it in executive session," French said. "But we said, 'No. There will be a group that will cry foul or something.'"
But French said that, except for the signs that appeared over the July Fourth holiday weekend, criticism of the gift has been almost nonexistent.
Board members received only one e-mail regarding the $16,000, board secretary Susan Shown said, and only one person called, anonymously.
The e-mail came from activist and former school board candidate Allen Dyer, who said he had questions about the board's awarding the money but wasn't criticizing the gift itself.
"I personally am not upset about it," Dyer said.
He said, however, that the timing of the gift was bad because Hickey and board members recently have been criticized for their handling of former Glenwood Middle School teacher Kristine Lockwood's firing and because of budget issues.
"The idea that you're rewarding a superintendent in the midst of controversy, I think it reflects poorly on the board. And I don't like the idea that the board would be setting the precedent that they can just drop a bunch of money on someone," Dyer said. "I think they're quite possibly exceeding their authority. That said, I think he deserves the $16,000."County Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, was skeptical of the board's last-minute generosity.
"I think it's very ironic. Haven't we heard all year about things we just couldn't buy?"
French and Schuchardt said Hickey deserves the money - and then some.
"We believe that when a person retires after being CEO of a company, the largest employer in the county, and after having been so successful, that that person deserves a gracious thank-you," French said.
French said similar awards were given to previous superintendents and Hickey's gift is nothing compared with the huge sums paid to unsuccessful superintendents to get them to leave.
"It was a wise decision," French said. "It was a decision that showed the gratitude of the county toward his leadership. The fact that one person, or a small group of people, are dissatisfied about it, does not negate the wonderful legacy he has left to Howard County."