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Outgoing Harford school board members bid farewells as their terms come to an end

School board members Robert Frisch, left, and Thomas Fitzpatrick said emotional farewells Monday as their time on the board ended.
School board members Robert Frisch, left, and Thomas Fitzpatrick said emotional farewells Monday as their time on the board ended. (Erika Butler/The Aegis)

The first fully elected and appointed school board in Harford County met for the last time Monday night and when the board meets in July, it will have an almost completely different look.

Only two members of the sitting board will remain for another term. The remaining eight either chose not to seek reappointment or weren’t eligible to be reappointed, chose not to run for another term or lost their seats in the November 2018 election. The board is comprised of three appointed at-large members, six elected members — one for each county council district — and a student representative.

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Before they left, the outgoing board members offered their thanks and words of “wisdom” to incoming board members and urged members of the school community to continue their advocacy efforts, especially when it comes to school funding.

In the last year with the budget, board president Joseph Voskuhl said he has never seen so much effort put into something by parents, “in 42 years in the classroom and the office, four years on the board.”

Over six months, parents lobbied and rallied to get enough funding for Harford County Public Schools so positions wouldn’t have to be eliminated. In the end, neither the county executive nor Harford County Council provided the additional $5 million that would have saved those positions, and 108.3 will be eliminated before the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

Vokuhl said he’s been trying to look at the situation as football coach. A game is four quarters, and the first quarter is over and his team is down 7-0 with three quarters to play.

“The fourth quarter will be in 2022, an election year. That can be the Hail Mary pass, when the parents, the citizens in the community can get this school system the funding that is needed to become the number one school system in the state of Maryland,” Voskuhl, who chose not to run for a second term, said. “Not to knock Montgomery County, but we can do better than Montgomery County, especially with the leadership we now have in place.”

Voskuhl was referring to Superintendent Sean Bulson, who was with the Montgomery County school system for 16 years, including time as a community superintendent supervising 36 schools with approximately 24,000 students.

“Once in a while you do something right, and a year ago we did something right” in hiring Bulson, Voskuhl said.

Also leaving the board are appointed members vice president Laura Runyeon, Joseph Hau and Alfred Williamson, as well as elected members Robert Frisch , Nancy Reynolds and Thomas Fitzpatrick, plus student member Josh Oltarzewski.

Williamson, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, and Fitzpatrick lost campaigns to be elected to the board.

In February, Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Joyce Herold, Roy Phillips and Patrice Ricciardi to the Board of Education. They will be joined by Sonia Karwacki, Tamara Rush, David Bauer and Kathryn Carmello, elected in November, and student member Christian Walker from C. Milton Wright High School.

Rachel Gauthier and Jansen Robinson, who won re-election campaigns in the fall, are returning members to the board.

Fitzpatrick, who remarked that the new Havre de Grace High School project, which he fought hard for, is a work in progress that will be completed one day, the Harford school system is a work in progress he doubts will ever be completed.

“Harford County will never, ever achieve its potential to be a truly first-rate community and leader in the state of Maryland until we dedicate ourselves to the proposition that we invest sufficient funds to build a truly first-rate school system,” Fitzpatrick said.

He spoke of the three most important votes during his time on the board: Barbara Canavan as superintendent, Havre de Grace Middle and High, and Bulson as superintendent.

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Canavan, who was at Monday’s meeting to witness the induction of two of her former colleagues into the HCPS Educators Hall of Fame, was the right choice at the time, Fitzpatrick said. Morale was low and the school system needed someone to rally the troops.

Fitzpatrick said his mission of getting a new Havre de Grace High School is complete and that Bulson is inspiring as a school system leader.

Reynolds’ decision not to seek re-election brought to a close 46 years of being associated with the Harford school system and her “third and final retirement.”

She’s been a language arts teacher, assistant principal, principal, principal mentor and service learning mentor in addition to school board member.

“Parents, please continue to advocate for our children,” Reynolds said. “Your opinions, your experiences are vital to the decision-making process.”

Two highlights bookended Frisch’s nine years as a board member, he said. He joined the board for the comprehensive elementary school redistricting, a process that was as transparent as they could make it and so anyone that could be engaged in it, was.

“I think we came out with a pretty good result from that exercise,” Frisch said.

The backend was the process the school system went through in hiring Bulson as superintendent and the most recent budget.

“We, as a board, made sure we were going to be as transparent as we could be, we were going to engage our communities as much as we could, we were actually going to listen to what our greater Harford County community had to say in who and what it wanted in the next superintendent,” Frisch said.

It’s a high water mark, he said, but the proof is in the pudding when looking at the past budget processes.

“It’s never been like this before, and that’s a direct result of who the man is [Bulson] that’s sitting in that seat today,” Frisch said.

Runyeon was appointed to the school board in 2015 and said it was, personally and professionally, one of the most challenging commitments she’s ever made.

The goal has always been to attempt to make the greatest impact on the most students, she said.

While the board members didn’t always agree, “I never doubted each of you was trying to make the decision you believed is in the best interest of these students and this system,” Runyeon said.

That’s the advice she gave the incoming board members: “Always, always allow the best interest of students to guide your decision-making.”

Hau was also absent from Monday’s meeting and gave his farewell at the June 10 meeting.

His eight years on board were a rewarding experience and he’s particular proud of restoring overnight visits to Harford Glen Environmental Education Center.

“Time and again, I heard how impactful the program is and how much our students enjoy their overnight experience,” Hau said on June 10.

He’s also proud of the diverse group board members who agreed and disagreed on many things, but one thing they all always agreed on: “that diversity is good for our community. As our district and community become more diverse racially and with different language groups, let us all welcome this diversity.”

Everyone wants the same thing: a great education system, Hau said, but not everyone agrees on how to pay for it.

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“My mantra, for the past few years is, yes, we have a revenue problem,” he said. “If all Harford County families increase their revenue contribution to education by $200 a year, we’ll never have a budget shortfall.”

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