Harford County Public Schools Superintendent search finalist Dr. Sean Bulson spoke with a group of Harford County High school student representatives during a round of stakeholder interviews Thursday.
Throughout his 23-year career in education, the partnerships and strong relationships Sean Bulson has developed with community leaders have created multiple successes for students.
“Going back through my career, partnership is pretty much the only way I know to do the work,” Bulson said during a community forum at the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air Thursday evening. “My philosophy is to draw on the vast array of resources that are in a community.”
Bulson, a University of North Carolina System official, is one of two finalists to be the next superintendent of Harford County Public Schools. The other finalist, David Ring, participated in a lengthy forum with the community Tuesday evening in the Roberty Building, the school system headquarters.
Both candidates spent a day touring local schools and meeting with board of education members and students, followed by a roughly three-hour evening forum, during which the finalists answered questions from students, representatives of HCPS employee associations and central office officials, local media and the greater community, including local government leaders and institutions that partner with the school system such as Harford Community College.
Bulson said he is impressed with many aspects of Harford County Public Schools, including its budget documents, academic programs and the students.
“There are a lot great stories to tell, and I’d like to be part of the team that’s doing that,” Bulson said.
He visited Harford Technical High School in Bel Air, Aberdeen High School and Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air Thursday, and he has conducted additional research on HCPS, including reading through its more than 400-page budget book.
Bulson called the budget book “one of the best sources of information I had” for conducting his research. He said he plans to buy a house in Harford if hired as superintendent.
“I’ve seen so many wonderful things here in Harford County,” he said. “I’m hoping to have a chance to bring some of those experiences that I’ve gained, over 23 years I’ve been serving students, to this community.”
The Harford school board will have the final say on hiring the next superitendent, whom they plan to select before current Superintendent Barbara Canavan retires June 30. Her successor will begin their term July 1.
School board president Joseph Voskuhl has moderated both forums.
“That you very much for taking a role and an interest in our search for a new superintendent,” Voskuhl told audience members Thursday. “It’s very much appreciated by the board of education.”
Bulson is the interim vice president for the division of university and P-12 partnerships for the UNC System, a position he has held for two years.
Much of his work involves “educator preparation,” such as partnering with colleges of education in North Carolina and an initiative in which unversities partner with K-12 school districts to support low-performing students in low-performing school systems and preparing educators to work with those populations.
“I do partnerships for a living right now,” Bulson said.
He spent five years, before coming to UNC, as the superintendent of schools in Wilson County, N.C., a community of about 80,000 people with a school system serving about 12,000 students in 26 schools.
Relationships with local community colleges and four-year schools have helped ensure the success of early college and dual enrollment programs in Wilson County. High school students can earn college credit and even a degree through those programs, Bulson said.
Bulson spent the bulk of his career, 16 years, as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, director and community superintendent with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. That system, the largest public school system in Maryland and the 14th largest in the country, has more than 161,000 students and 205 schools, according to the MCPS website.
He started his career as an ESOL teacher, working with students whose first language is not English, and experience he said is “imprinted upon my DNA as an educator.”
Bulson said his students came from multiple cultural, linguistic, national and economic backgrounds.
School leaders should give educators “very practical strategies you can do to promote inclusiveness, to help people understand differences and to ensure that all voices are heard,” Bulson said.
He said commitments to diversity and inclusion should be evident in employee training, as well as budgeting to ensure different student groups and individual students all have the resources they need “to get to that bar of excellence.”
Bulson talked in detail about his views on building an effective overall budget. He said school system leaders should engage with their local government leaders about their values and budget priorities and show them why it is worth investing taxpayer dollars in the public schools.
“If we can’t, as a school system, demonstrate to those folks that we have been very deliberate and critical of ourselves to deliver as much efficiency as possible, then I don’t think they’re going to listen to much else that we say,” he said.
Bulson said strong relationships are critical in the areas of diversity and equity, and they are also critical when tackling bullying.
“Bullying, in many ways, is a relationship challenge,” he said, noting it affects students and adults.
“Everyone needs to feel psychologically and physically safe,” he said, adding that bullying diminishes people in both of those areas.
“On the more concrete level, it’s about having very clear policies,” he said of how school systems can deal with bullying. “It’s about ensuring those policies are well enforced but also well communicated; people understand how we define bullying and how we expect to respond to it.”
Professional relationships also paid off when Bulson worked with his aides and police and public safety officials in Wilson County to revamp local school safety policies and provide training after the massacre of students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012.
“My approach, like every other thing that I think has been successful in my past, was to reach out to the experts in the community,” he said.
The Rev. Baron Young, senior pastor of St. James A.M.E. Church in Havre de Grace and an Abingdon resident, attended both forums and said he was impressed with the format.
“I would give the [school] board high marks on the activities leading up to their decision,” he said. “The involvement of the community, I thought, was very good.”
Young said it was helpful to be able to interact one-on-one with both finalists before they answered audience questions — both men talked with people in the crowd during breaks — and it gives county residents “a greater perception they are a participant in the process.”