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About 100 people attended the first of Superintendent Sean Bulson's community budget forums at C. Milton Wright High Thursday night.
About 100 people attended the first of Superintendent Sean Bulson's community budget forums at C. Milton Wright High Thursday night. (Erika Butler)

An eye wash station doesn’t work in a science classroom where chemistry experiments are done.

Students are suffering from elimination of an intervention teacher.

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A long-term substitute who’s not certified in the subject is teaching math, trying to help students pass a standardized test.

Those are among the problems teachers in Harford County Public Schools mentioned during a Thursday night forum as they deal with increased enrollment and fewer teaching positions.

About 100 people, including school system senior leaders who led small-group discussions, attended the forum at C. Milton Wright High School during the first of Superintendent Sean Bulson’s two community forums on next year’s budget.

The second forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday at Joppatowne High School.

In those small-group discussions, teachers, parents and others interested in the school system discussed what can be done to help them do their jobs better, “how can we help, what are you feeling in school, how does that play in the [budget] conversation," Bulson asked.

At one of those small-group discussions, one message was obvious: “I’m hearing very clearly you’re worried about your students," said Susan Brown, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Among her group were four teachers, a parent and a mother of a Harford schools graduate who’s also concerned about the the state of the system.

“More money would be nice, but we are concerned about students getting what they need. They’re not getting the emotional support,” said a teacher who declined to give her name.

All of the input collected from the people at Thursday’s meeting will be reviewed by Bulson and his staff and considered as he puts together his budget proposal for next year.

He plans to present the spending plan to Harford County Board of Education members at their Jan. 13 meeting, with hopes the board will vote on it at the Feb. 10 meeting so it can be submitted to County Executive Barry Glassman by the March 1 deadline.

The effect of cutting teaching positions as part of this year’s budget is being exacerbated by a surprising increase in enrollment over last year of more than 600 students, Bulson said before the small groups began their discussions. (About 60 of those students are in pre-kindergarten, seats that were already factored in.)

Since FY2011, when the county began to feel the impact of the recession and enrollment began to decrease, the number of teaching positions has been cut every year.

“As we’ve cut, now we’re beginning to see enrollment going in the other direction,” Bulson said, “and it’s creating serious challenges in our schools.”

The positions weren’t eliminated because the school system thought they could do without them, but because it couldn’t afford them. As they were cut, class sizes have gotten larger, resources available for teachers have diminished and the pressure on the schools is growing, Bulson said.

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“So the increase in enrollment has really exacerbated our cuts,” he said.

The cost to educate students is also going up, especially in special education, where it costs three times as much to educate a student than a general education student, Bulson said.

About half of the county’s tax revenue goes to education, “so we absolutely have to be good stewards of those funds,” he said.

While he often hears that the school system is inefficient and bigger class sizes is a common complaint, Bulson said he would argue “the ability to serve our students is more challenged by some of the things our students are bringing in the door with them.”

Harford ranks last in the state in per pupil spending, at $13,776 per student. To catch up to the next highest county, Queen Anne’s, Harford would have to add $7.2 million to its budget. To be on par with Worcester, which spends $18,472 per student, would cost Harford more than $173 million, according to figures provided by Bulson.

Despite the last-place ranking, Harford has a high return on its investment, he said. Harford third-graders ranked eighth for performance in reading on standardized tests. Fifth-graders also ranked eighth on their math tests.

“I challenge you to find an academic measure where we come in 24th. There isn’t one,” Bulson said. “Some may be below the state average, but even then, we’re outperforming our funding.”

The difference if Harford were in 23rd place, 22nd or 21st in terms of per pupil spending “could make a huge difference, and that’s part of the conversation.”

“The question is, is there a plan in this community to be something other than 24th in the state? Do we have an interest in being something other than 24th in the state?” he asked. “We’ve taken the cuts for years. We’ve done what we’ve needed to do to demonstrate we’re willing to take the steps to be responsible.”

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