New Harford schools superintendent preparing a 'Listen and Learn' tour with school, community leaders

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“I feel like I’m drinking from a fire hose, but otherwise people have been very welcoming,” Sean Bulson, the new superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, says of his first two weeks on the job.

Bulson’s first day was July 2, and he has spent the past two weeks settling in, meeting with school board members and top aides as well as community leaders and elected officials such as Richard Slutzky, president of the Harford County Council and the council’s liaison to the school system.

“It’s been great to build some context and understand Harford County,” Bulson, 49, said during an interview Tuesday morning with a reporter from The Aegis at Bulson’s office in the school headquarters building in Bel Air.

The Harford County Board of Education named Bulson superintendent during the board’s June 11 meeting, approving a four-year contract with him to lead 54 schools serving nearly 37,800 students. His salary will be $207,500 a year, according to HCPS.

He succeeds Barbara Canavan, who retired effective June 30 after four years as superintendent and 45 years with the Harford County schools.

Bulson comes to Harford County via the University of North Carolina System, where he was interim vice president of the Division of University and P-12 Partnerships, working with colleges and universities to support low-performing schools in that state.

He has spent 23 years total in education, as a teacher, administrator, school superintendent and university official. He has worked with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and was superintendent of Wilson County Schools in the eastern part of North Carolina before he joined the UNC System in 2016.

He said he has moved into an apartment in Bel Air and is working on getting a Maryland driver’s license. His wife and 14-year-old daughter live in Washington, D.C., but he plans to “eventually” have them move to Harford County.

Slutzky, a retired HCPS physical education teacher, expressed appreciation for Bulson taking the time to meet with him last week. Bulson said they talked for about 90 minutes.

“I was impressed with the broad scope of his education experience, much at the senior executive administration level,” Slutzky wrote in an email Tuesday. “He recognizes that leading Harford County Public Schools will come with some new challenges but he also indicated that he was already aware of many of the of the system’s strong points.”

Slutzky praised Bulson for his “engaging personality,” which he believes is “always a significant asset in building relationships.”

Recent meetings are the warm-up phase of what Bulson calls his Entry Plan, a four-month process involving a “Listen and Learn” tour consisting of multiple meetings with stakeholders inside and outside the school system. That will be followed by a “Prepare for the Future” phase, in which the data from the tour is used to set priorities and goals for the school system and developing strategies to meet those goals.

Bulson will present his findings in October, according to an HCPS news release.

His administrative assistant has been scheduling the “Listen and Learn” tour meetings, and many of them have been scheduled, Bulson said.

“I have a lot of learning and listening to do quickly as I start hearing from all those folks,” he said.

Meetings with school system leaders, elected officials and community leaders are slated for July, meetings with school leaders and employees in August and then students, parents and guardians and community organizations once the school year starts in September, according to the news release.

The first day of the 2018-2019 school year is Tuesday, Sept. 4, the day after Labor Day.

Bulson said he plans to visit all 54 schools before the school year begins and hopes to visit all of them a second time after classes begin.

“I’ll, hopefully, have seen all the schools twice by the second week of schools,” he said.

‘What’s working well’

Bulson praised the members of the former superintendent’s leadership team, top officials in the HCPS central office, and he said he does not have any immediate plans to bring in people he has worked with in the past.

“I’ve been in the field for a lot of years and met a lot of great people, but there are also a lot of great people here,” he said. “Should opportunities emerge, we just want the best person doing the work.”

At least one central office leadership position is vacant. Angela Morton, former executive director of elementary school instruction and performance, has retired as of July 1, HCPS spokesperson Jillian Lader confirmed.

Bulson stressed he is still listening and learning, “because it’s important to understand what’s working well,” and he does not want to disrupt things that are working in the central office.

He has met with Donoven Brooks, HCPS’ coordinator of safety and security. Brooks has been in his position since early January, coming to Harford County after 20 years with the Baltimore City School Police.

“I’ve been pretty encouraged about the level of work this team has done to ensure our schools are secure,” Bulson said.

He suggested a greater investment in assessing threats against schools, while at the same time addressing how that overlaps with providing mental health services to students and striking a balance between privacy and determining if anyone could be a safety threat.

“These are hard things to balance but again, [we have] good folks [who are] really thoughtful about that work, and I’m just confident we’ll be able to strike that right balance,” Bulson said.

Budgeting

The school board approved a $461.7 million operating budget for the current fiscal year, which started July 1, during its June 11 meeting, the same meeting when Bulson’s contract was accepted.

The budget was approved after hours of debate and pleas from HCPS employees and members of the public to not cut positions and keep funding intact for contractually obligated pay increases for employees. There are about 5,000 HCPS employees, represented by five separate unions.

The budget was balanced with a transfer of nearly $11 million from the operating budget fund balance, or cash reserves, as well as cutting 81 positions, many of them classroom support roles. The funding for pay increases, including a 2 percent cost of living adjustment and one to two step increases on the salary scale remained intact, however.

“I certainly have concerns about where we are, what our financial standing will be at the end of this year under the current budget,” said Bulson, who will be working his first year under a budget inherited from his predecessor and for which he had no input.

Bulson said he wants to understand more about how Harford compares to school districts of similar size.

“I also need to make sure we can get to a point where we have recurring revenue paying for recurring expenditures,” he said.

He said the HCPS budget comes up no matter who he talks with. He said he wants to “get as many stakeholders around the same table” to come up with solutions to budgeting issues.

“There needs to be more of a community-wide solution,” he said.

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