Anticipating a “fairly significant shortfall” in this year’s operating budget, Dr. Sean Bulson in his first year as Harford County Public Schools superintendent is considering a hiring and spending freeze to save money, Bulson announced Monday night.
An informal hiring freeze has already been implemented, Bulson said after Monday’s Harford County Board of Education meeting.
“I want to take some proactive steps to address this first as a school system, then take it deeper into the community,” Bulson said. “We need to reach a point where our budget can be balanced without so much cutting; and I have more work to figure out how to get to that point.”
He spoke at the last board meeting about budget challenges and referred to an article in the paper that said “another superintendent, same old story,” he said.
“Figuring out how we address [budget challenges] is where the story needs to change a little bit,” Bulson said.
The superintendent has convened five teams to begin looking at different elements of the budget, he said.
The teams will consist of members of the leadership team and school leadership, including principals who will work with one or two school board members as well as a member of the Citizens Budget Advisory to develop their charge, the scope of work they’ll take on during the school year, he said.
The first two will look at current-year spending and possible hiring and spending freezes, he said.
The budget that was sent to Harford County Executive Barry Glassman was balanced using about $11 million of the school system’s unassigned fund balance.
“This administration’s goal this year is to spend as little as possible ... spending all the way down the unassigned fund balance is something that concerns me greatly, leaving us without a reserve,” Bulson said.
Scrutinizing hiring needs
Glassman said Monday that he’ll wait to see what happens.
“We’re three months into our budget cycle, so it’s a little concerning if they’re having deficit projections 90 days in,” Glassman said. “I can see why he’s concerned.”
Glassman has seen budgets get tight in the last quarter of the fiscal year, but to be concerned at the end of the first quarter would indicate to him the budget was passed based on faulty revenue projections or expenditures, which isn’t a good thing, he said.
Bulson said the school system will look at “every single position we hire” between now and the end of the year and prioritize which ones need to be filled immediately.
Saving money during the school year is difficult, but one of the ways to do that is to not replace employees as quickly as possible if other people can handle a little more work, he said.
“In every case, we need to make sure students are safe, instruction is occurring; but at the same time we need to make sure we can pay for what we’re doing,” Bulson said.
In anticipation of a need to tighten spending, the superintendent has already left a couple of central office positions unfilled.
“So at some level, there’s been an informal soft start on that,” Bulson said. “The same with spending. Things come through we might be able to wait on or can do in a sort of ad hoc way now.”
Ultimately, however, he is waiting to see what the teams recommend.
“The team is coming together to look at different ways to modify some of the spending during the budget year,” Bulson said.
The other three teams will look a little further down the road.
The third team will focus on staffing processes, the data that’s collected and reviewed as staffing decisions are made.
“I see that team helping develop the next budget and also see that team helping us to streamline some of the processes into the future,” Bulson said. “It’s more of a strategic focus.”
The fourth team will look at potential places for outsourcing and efficiencies. Some might involve working more closely with entities in the community or involveoutsourcing business activities, he said.
“This is not likely to reveal savings this budget year but could be something we work toward in other years,” Bulson said.
Last is a team to work with the five bargaining units, each headed by a president, Bulson said “because in the past they have not been pulled together as a group to have bigger picture conversations about how we collaborate and how we engage our employees and the members of those associations in the budget development process.”
Bulson said he has met with the five presidents already and intends to meet with them again as the process moves along.
Then they’ll get to work.
He hasn’t set a target amount for reducing spending.
“I don’t have any idea right now how much we can save during this year,” he said. “We need the groups to look at it more closely. I don’t know what we can achieve with regard to that.”