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After eliminating more than 100 positions systemwide this school year, Harford County Superintendent Sean Bulson said he wants to add teachers as he prepares to meet with the community about the next year’s budget.

The need to add teachers comes after an enrollment spike of more than 600 students, more than half of which were at the middle school level.

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“While having enrollment grow is a good thing for a school district, having it come so quickly on the heels of cutting so many positions did certainly increase pressure on our schools,” Bulson said in an interview Monday.

When he presents his budget to the Harford County Board of Education in early January, “the goal this year is to produce a budget that doesn’t require any cuts,” he said. “I hope to be able to add teachers."

As part of the school system’s development of the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, Bulson is hosting community forums this week and next. The first is Thursday in the cafeteria at C. Milton Wright High School and the second is Monday at Joppatowne High School; both are from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

In June, the school board adopted a $478.8 million operating budget for FY2020, which began July 1, and included elimination of 84.5 instructional positions, nearly half of the 153 initially proposed to be cut.

Some of those positions were restored when Harford schools received about $5.5 million more in state funding than anticipated.

Harford had preliminary numbers in terms of state formula funding, but Bulson said he didn’t know if additional funding would have strings attached.

“We knew we were going to see more money, but we were afraid to put it back into the budget,” he said.

Last year’s cuts were drastic, he said, especially in a year when most other counties were not cutting positions.

“That we were still going down when others were going up was hard, but we had to right the ship a little bit,” Bulson said. “I can’t imagine where we would be today if we hadn’t been able to restore the positions we did, because the impact on our school and our class sizes is becoming more and more evident to people and it is something we need to address.”

Enrollment spike

Most notably, the impact is on larger class sizes and a greater workload for people in school-based positions.

“Everyone is doing more work, school-based or not, but I think it’s most acute at the school level,” Bulson said.

Enrollment in Harford schools, as of Sept. 30, has increased by 619 students from last year, according to Jillian Lader, manager of communications for the school system.

That increase is the county’s highest in a decade and “was not entirely anticipated” this year, Bulson said.

About 57 percent of those new students, 353, were enrolled at the middle school level, Lader said.

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“We’ve heard a lot about middle-school class size. It’s part of the problem everywhere in middle schools," Bulson said. “What we don’t understand, exactly, is why [enrollment increases are] is concentrated in those three grades and how we got them.”

Developing the budget

When preparing next year’s budget, Bulson said he could produce a figure at which no more positions would have to be cut, “but I don’t think that would be a responsible approach to funding for next year, because with the new pressure from increased enrollment, more of our schools are going to need more resources."

The superintendent is working with the school budget team to develop next year’s budget. Once it is presented to the board early next year, he anticipates the board will vote on it at the Feb. 10 meeting; the budget must be sent to Harford County Executive Barry Glassman by March 1.

Officials are trying to first identify the bare minimum funding the school system would need to not have to cut positions, then look at a what is a reasonable additional request and start working their way back, Bulson said.

Last year, the Glassman administration provided a $10 million increase in spending over the previous year.

Bulson has not had any conversations with the county executive about this year’s budget request, he said Monday.

The superintendent also was not willing to share what the overall increase in this year’s budget could be; community input offered at the upcoming forums could figure into that, he said.

Last year was the fifth consecutive year the Glassman administration increased funding to the school system and provided funding for raises for teachers, Cindy Mumby, spokeswoman for Harford County government, said.

How much the county is wiling to fund for FY2021 depends on revenue estimates that are still several months out as well as the state legislature and what recommendations come from the Kirwan Commission.

Glassman will present his budget in April. Regardless of how much local funding is provided to the school system, the administration expects the school system “to be good stewards of the one half of the county budget they receive,” Mumby said.

“We expect them to be efficient with those funds and provide a good education for county students,” she said.

Upcoming budget forums

Bulson anticipates the budget forums to be structured similarly to community meetings he held on his entry plan after he became superintendent July 1, 2018.

He expects to give a brief presentation on where the budget stands, then have people at the forums at tables to have discussions, led by the school system’s senior leadership, about what they want to see in next year’s budget. During those conversations, he will be able to go from table to table to glean information.

Notes from each group discussion will be part of the budget plan as well, he said.

While this year’s budget process may not be any less difficult than last year, it may look more traditional, he said.

“One carry-over from last year is a lot of people are engaged in the budget process, people are well-informed about the process and they understand more than they have in the past," Bulson said. “I think that’s a great outcome. People are really involved in something so important to the county.”

As the process moves along, he hopes people understand how the budget is developed, which includes their input.

“In the past, the board’s request was viewed sometimes as excessive or out-of-line with the realities of the county,” Bulson said. “Hopefully people can look at what we ask for and understand why we’re asking, that it’s not arbitrary.”

Long-term, the discussion needs to continue.

“We need to have conversations in this county about what do we want from our schools and how are we going to get there,” Bulson said. “That’s not just something for school system employees to answer.”

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