A clear, simple mission [Editorial]

Sean Bulson, the new superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, is making the rounds, visiting with as many people as he can to learn as much as he can about the school system he was chosen to lead and the community it serves.

Like a good student, he seems to be taking copious notes, according to David Anderson’s story in The Aegis Friday, filling old-school black composition notebooks with what he is being told during meetings with those he considers stakeholders in the public school system.

Bulson is doing the right thing getting out and meeting as many people as he can before the crush of a new year leading a new school system overwhelms his schedule. Time is short, as school starts less than two weeks from now on Sept. 4.

“This community has been tremendously welcoming; people have been very forthcoming,”Bulson said. “There’s no shortage of opinions – there never are in education. It’s something that people are very, very passionate about at all time. There’s nothing that drives our energy more than what we want to do for our kids, and that comes up in every conversation.”

Bulson is talking the talk, and we would like to see him follow up by walking the walk.

When it comes to not only Harford County Public Schools, but also every school, the mission is simple: Educate children. Nothing more, nothing less. That needs to be done as effectively and efficiently as possible in a nurturing, safe environment. Everything else is irrelevant bluster.

For too long, the bureaucracy of Harford County Public Schools has seemingly been as important as the education of children. That has never been more evident in recent decades than at budget time when the school system has never been able to get things just quite right, and the mission of educating kids frankly has gotten lost in shuffle.

It started with Harford County Public Schools putting together unrealistic budgets that didn’t have a realistic chance of being fully funded by the county. The school board passed them and sent them on to Harford County executives in hopes of, well the expectations were unclear since most of the time the county executives made clear in advance what the funding for the next fiscal year would be compared to the funding for the current fiscal year.

The disconnects were palpable. The school system was asking, again, for way more money than the county government said it had available and was hurt and surprised that the budget request wasn’t fully funded.

That led school officials to claim their budgets had been cut, when in reality the school system was getting more money in the coming year than it had been given in the current year. That was followed by efforts to rile up the school community following that mantra that “the budget had been cut.” That, with the added threat that programs would have to be cut, worked for a while.

When parents, students and teachers no longer got sufficiently agitated, the stakes were raised. Then the students, rather the student athletes, were seen as cash cows. The school system began assessing participation fees for students to participate in extracurricular activities, most notably sports.

Fees were so small, however, as to be negligible except as a public punishment for some students for the perceived lack of government funding. There’s no other way to describe a participation fee that began at $50 per student, per sport and that was eventually increased to $100.

Those fees were and remain a bad look for a school system to collect thousands of dollars from student athletes in budgets that are hundreds of millions of dollars.

School board members in recent years have vowed to change the process, but the words have rung hollow, and this past spring’s final budget approval fiasco remains fresh in many minds, including ours, for good reason: It was embarrassing, not to mention unnecessary.

Bulson is correct to want to start the annual budget process that has to end next June by this October. He starts with a clean slate.

As the next budget is put together, it would be prudent for the new superintendent to take a hard look at the bureaucracy that operates Harford County Public Schools with the sincere mission of changing business as it has always been done for what’s in the best interests of the students being educated.

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