In an effort to close a $35 million gap between revenues and expenses in the Harford County Public Schools budget for the next fiscal year, Superintendent Sean Bulson has proposed cutting 179 positions, he said at a Board of Education meeting Monday night.
Bulson said, however, that he hopes no one loses a job. He said he would like to see people in those positions reassigned.
“I don’t think I can state to you this is based on best practice. This isn’t what we hoped for for our schools,” Bulson told the board. “It’s quite frankly the best fit.”
He is preparing his first budget as superintendent of the 38,000-student school system and has said from the beginning he wants to present a responsible budget, not a request that won’t be funded. His request must be submitted to Harford County Executive Barry Glassman by March 1.
The school system’s operating budget this year is about $461 million, with expenses next year projected to be $485.3 million, a difference of $24 million, plus the $11 million from the fund balance used to balance this year’s budget.
Those expenses include salaries ($281.4 million), health benefits ($93.8 million) and other expenses ($110 million).
“We employ more people than the revenue we receive makes possible,” Bulson told school board members Monday night. “We are not able to pay our bills with the number of people we employ.”
Bulson’s proposal will include elimination of 153 instructional and 26 administrative positions across the school system — at elementary and secondary levels. The superintendent notified the principals Friday about his proposal, which was shared with school staffs on Monday.
“No question there are concerns,” Bulson said after Monday’s meeting. “I think that’s very understandable.”
The school system has a turnover of more than 200 people a year by retirements or resignations, he said, and he expects nearly all those positions can provide jobs for the people whose positions are cut, but cautioned there will be some moving around.
At the same time, Bulson, who was hired in June, wants to maintain the negotiated step and cost-of-living adjustment increases for remaining staff members.
“We have focused on ensuring our employees take-home pay isn’t harmed,” Bulson said, adding the cuts are deeper to the school system so they can maintain the health benefits, COLAs and steps. “We want to take care of the people we have left. They’ve got enough bad news as it is, we don’t need to add more.”
Glassman, who took similar steps to reduce the workforce when he became county executive, said he sympathizes with Bulson. More than 200 county positions have been eliminated since he took office, but about 98 percent of the people found jobs elsewhere with the county.
“I’ve been through this and I know it’s painful,” Glassman said. “But Dr. Bulson’s plan is to address some of these systemic problems and get the budget where it’s sustainable, and come to me in the spring with a request I can fund.”
The county executive said he wants to be a good partner with the school system, and he and Bulson have been meeting regularly to discuss the budget. He said he would look for extra revenue within the county budget “to do our share.”
“He wants to submit a request that’s doable, not one that simply puts off the changes that need to be made,” Glassman said.
The cost savings of eliminating those positions is about $11 million — 153 positions at $72,000 per position (the average cost of salary, benefits and cost to employ a teacher).
Harford County Board of Education President Joe Voskuhl said the superintendent doesn’t have much choice.
“How else are you going to do it? What are you going to cut?” Voskuhl asked. “It’s a realistic budget proposal, what we can afford, what we have money to spend on.”
He reiterated what Bulson has pointed out, that the school system’s percentage of the county budget has decreased over the years.
“Realistically, the county needs to fund education as it should be funded,” Voskuhl said. “In my opinion, the county does not contribute enough to education.”
Of the 153 teaching positions, 50 will come from the elementary schools and 103 will come from the middle and high schools, Bulson said.
At the elementary level, the cuts mean increases in class sizes. In kindergarten, first and second grades, class size will be capped at 25 students; the cap for third, fourth and fifth grades will be 30. Based on projected enrollment, teacher assignments will be adjusted based on where the need is, Bulson said.
Based on those caps, Deerfield Elementary will lose five positions next year, Abingdon and Church Creek will lose four, three schools will lose three positions, 10 schools will lose two and six schools will lose one, according to information provided by Bulson.
Some schools — Jarrettsville and Norrisville Elementary — stand to gain a teacher next year, according to Bulson’s proposal. Churchville, Darlington, Dublin, Havre de Grace, Joppatowne, Meadowvale, Prospect Mill and William S. James won’t see any change in the number of teachers.
In the secondary grades, 44 positions will be cut at the middle school level and 59 at the high school level, according to Bulson.
Those were determined by a student-to-staff ratio, he said, not on class size. Schools with more students who receive free and reduced-price meals will see fewer cuts.
“Our poorer schools, with greater poverty rates, lost fewer teachers,” Bulson said.
Edgewood High is the only school where the number of positions won’t change.
North Harford schools would lose the most teachers — 14 at North Harford Middle and 10 at North Harford High — followed by Fallston, where 10 will be cut. On the other end, Patterson Mill Middle, Bel Air Middle, Fallston Middle and Aberdeen High will lose one position each, according to Bulson’s proposal.
Bulson is proposing $3 million in administrative cuts — $1 million each at the elementary and secondary levels and central office. Those positions include principals, assistant principals and instructional facilitators, he said.
No principal positions will be cut, he said, but 16 positions (12 assistant principal and four instructional facilitator) will be cut at the elementary level and 10 at the secondary.
Six schools — Churchville, Forest Lakes, Jarrettsville, North Bend, North Harford and William S. James elementary schools — would only have a half-time assistant principal, Bulson is proposing.
In the secondary schools, each school will lose at least a portion of an assistant principal, Bulson said, and he’s looking at where one assistant principal can share duties of more than one school.
Bulson will submit a budget proposal in January that will include these reductions, he said.
It’s important to begin taking steps now, he said.
“Because even not knowing the money we anticipate from the county, if we don’t make some of these cuts now, the revenue we traditionally receive from the county, even at the highest levels, [we’d still] be in a position to do this cutting,” Bulson said. “My greatest fear is we find ourselves cutting at this level in June, because the chaos that would ensue … I don’t see a way to move forward in this budget responsibly without identifying these up front.”
It also has to be done early so schools and other offices know what to expect as early as possible, he said; that’s why a $500 payment incentive is being offered to staff who know they will be leaving after this year and notify the administration of their departure by Feb. 15.
“We hope that will lessen the anxiety of those in the positions being eliminated,” Bulson said.