Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson, Ed.D. speaks to a group of HCPS employees during Thursday's Harford County Public School Year Kick-Off event at the APG Federal Credit Union Arena at Harford Community College.
Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson, Ed.D. speaks to a group of HCPS employees during Thursday's Harford County Public School Year Kick-Off event at the APG Federal Credit Union Arena at Harford Community College. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Superintendent Sean Bulson has worked in four different school districts in Maryland and North Carolina; he believes Harford County Public Schools “is the best I’ve ever experienced.”

“The quality of the talent, the commitment to the students, the commitment to the work and the interest in not only supporting this community but the school district in working together,” Bulson told about half of the school system’s more than 5,000 employees Friday morning. “Once we have that, we can do anything, and I think we’re going to do some pretty incredible things.”

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Bulson, who has been superintendent since July 2, 2018, hosted a Back to School Kickoff for all new and returning staff members — teachers, custodians, principals and food service — with two sessions Friday at the APGFCU Arena.

Bulson came to Harford from the University of North Carolina System where he worked to open laboratory schools at UNC institutions to serve students from low-performing schools.

The night Bulson signed his contract was the night the Harford Board of Education met until nearly 2 a.m. to reconcile its budget, which included using $11 million to balance the more than $491 million FY2018-2019 spending plan.

“I had no idea coming in the budget would consume my life the way it did last year,” Bulson said. “But it also showed me the type of community we have, that when we work together we can make the hard decisions and move forward.”

The last school year was a difficult one, he admitted, but amazing things got done at the same time. And Friday was his opportunity to thank everyone in the school system, which he called a “tremendous family,” for their efforts.

“The greater purpose today is so I have the opportunity to say thank you, to all of you, everyone who works in this district,” Bulson said. “No matter your job title, you’re here for the students and you’ve been doing amazing work for the students in this county, lifting this county. What you do makes it possible for students to have the best possible environment to be safe, to grow, to learn — and everyone contributes to that.”

All that work contributes to the students’ success, he said.

A big box of crayons

Nothing like Friday’s kickoff had ever been done before, 2019 Teacher of the Year Paige Milanoski said.

“Appreciate this moment,” Milanoski, an English teacher at Havre de Grace High School, told her colleagues, “because it truly is magical.”

Like Bulson, she said the last school year was challenging, and when you’ve been in a valley, the hill looks intimidating. Everyone at Friday’s sessions took the step to come back, and together they can conquer the hill, Milanoski said.

She likened teachers to crayons, which start the year nice and sharp, are rounded over by November and in January their wrappers are peeling back. By June, they’re broken into pieces, ready to be melted down.

“When you think about it, crayons can be rounded or snapped in half, but our function and our purpose, the impact we have on our kids and in our schools, will never, ever be changed or dulled,” Milanoski said. “My fellow crayons, I will see you at the sharpener in January and look forward to be melted down with you again in June. But what I most look forward to is seeing impact of the magnificent color we will create together in between. Let’s make this the best year yet. Let’s celebrate and lift up this profession of which we have chosen to be a part. I can’t think of 5,000 better people I would choose to take this hill.”

School system employees have been through a lot, but they’re ready to go, she said.

“We have an inner strength I believe with every fiber of my being no other profession has,” Milanoski said.

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College and career ready

The school system can get better and needs to better prepare Harford students to be independent adults when they graduate from high school, Bulson told the staff.

Harford County Public Schools is partnering with Harford Community College to create the Northstar Pathway, a collaboration that blurs the line between kindergarten through 12th grade education and higher education, he said.

The goal is to make sure that every student graduates high school with college experience or career licensure, Bulson said.

That could be taking classes through HCC or receiving technical training.

“I believe we can get every one of our students, starting in pre-K, to have college experience before they leave us or have some career we know they’re prepared to be successful,” Bulson said. “If we can do one of these two, if we can get there, everybody’s good. That’s where we need to go. We have the right tools to do it."

Room to improve

During his Listen and Learn tour in which the superintendent immersed himself in the school community, Bulson said he found several areas that need to be addressed, including writing, which he said “fell off everyone’s agenda with No Child Left Behind;" career options and access to technical education; opportunities for staff to work together; improved safety and better understanding of mental health.

“Every district in the country is struggling with [mental health],” Bulson said. “Students are coming at us a little differently. They have challenges we didn’t have before.”

The superintendent wants to address each of those.

In terms of safety, the school system last year began ACRT training, a new response to an active assailant incident in a school. Rather than shelter in place, staff and students are taught to “run, hide, fight.”

Most of the school system’s staff has undergone the training and this fall will begin to share it with the students.

Budget

Bulson knew immediately upon assuming the role of superintendent the budget would be a difficult one. And while difficult decisions had to be made for FY2019-2020, he also made it a goal to ensure salaries and benefits would remain on track for employees.

“I didn’t want compensation to become victim of tight budget cuts,” he said, “because I absolutely believe we really need to take care of all of our employees.”

This year, the average salary increase across all school system employees will be 4.73 percent.

“Considering the challenges in the budget, I think that right there is a tremendous step forward,” Bulson said.

More than 100 positions were eliminated from the budget for this year, which resulted in larger class sizes, particularly in elementary schools, and fewer class options in secondary schools.

Nearly twice as many positions would’ve had to be eliminated were it not for the $6.7 million in funding from the state, which was expected to be about $600,000.

An additional $8.7 million from the Kirwan Commission also allowed the school system to expand its pre-kindergarten program and provide more support to the county’s poorer schools and to mental health efforts.

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Going forward, the school system needs to make its budget sustainable.

Positions have been cut every year since 2011 — “we need to get to where that is not a requirement,” Bulson said.

To do that, spending has to be aligned with the school system’s and the community’s priorities. The challenge, he said, is that no one has talked about what those priorities are.

Customer service

After college, Bulson worked in the restaurant industry, where he learned the importance of customer service and taking care of people.

He wants to improve the customer service of Harford County Public Schools, internally and externally.

“How do we support each other, how do we help each other do their jobs better, how do we make our interactions among ourselves more positive, more beneficial, more supportive?” Bulson asked. “Externally, how do we appear to those we are serving — parents, students, other community members who interact with our schools?”

Sometimes it’s just about a change in attitude, other times it’s providing a service, he said.

He used a new flip book given to all new teachers, a list of resources and ideas to help them get ready for their first year in the classroom.

“It’s something we can do to support those working for us,” he said.

For its external customers, the school system has produced a bookmark, in English and Spanish, with a list of questions parents can ask their child’s teacher during parent conferences.

“It’s a way to help parents coming into our schools better advocate for their children,” Bulson said.

The school system is also launching a new website on Friday he said will have a “new, fresh, crisp look that represents the feeling in this room and in this district.”

The new Office of Communications and Family Outreach will combine four groups — equity and cultural proficiency, communications, innovative partnerships and family, and community partnerships — into one larger group to look at strengthening the school system’s message and help identify priorities moving forward.

The Parent Academy will provide information to help better support the parents, and thereby their children, Bulson said.

The first session is Thursday, Sept. 19, at Bel Air High School, where Dr. Leonard Sax will talk about the addictive characteristics of video games and social media.

And the Professional Development Advisory Council will develop training for all staff members, not just on the instructional side.

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