Harford County superintendent says system faces budget, safety and policy challenges

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Harford County Public Schools are facing multiple challenges, primarily with the budget, changing state education policies and ever-present safety concerns, Dr. Sean Bulson, the new superintendent of schools, told an audience of about 500 people Monday evening.

The school system must find a balance between creating welcoming environments at schools and ensuring the safety of students, staff and visitors, Bulson said.

“Everywhere I’ve worked, there’s been a particular focus on customer service and creating welcoming environments in our schools,” he said.

Bulson pledged the same focus in Harford County, but he stressed that “we can’t divorce that from the conversation around safety.”

Neither safety nor anything else in the school system can be considered without weighing fiscal restraints, he said.

Bulson emphasized prevention — through providing greater mental health services to students and adult employees — is a key element in keeping schools safe.

The challenge of creating greater mental health services, as well as others set by Bulson, is financial.

The superintendent said HCPS ranks sixth in the state regarding in the ratio of school psychologists to students, 16th for counselors, 19th for nurses and 22nd for pupil personnel workers.

The school system has lost 456 positions since 2011, while its annual operating revenue has increased by $46 million — $436 million to $462 million — over the same period with most of that increase coming from the local government, Bulson said.

Positions have dropped from 5,231 in fiscal 2011 to 4,775 in fiscal 2019, according to Bulson.

He showed that costs have gone up even with increased revenues, and said “the biggest culprit” is health insurance.

“We’ve had to cut every year to keep up with these costs,” Bulson said.

In the face of those challenges, Bulson presented an optimistic view Monday evening of those who make up the school system serving more than 37,000 students in 54 schools, with about 5,000 employees, as well as the community that supports it.

“The talent is here,” Bulson said. “The energy and the commitment is right here in this community — we just need to access it.”

Budget development teams

Bulson, who became superintendent in early July, spent about five weeks on a “Listen and Learn Tour” in September to October, visiting schools around the county to hear from people within and without the school system.

He presented his findings Monday evening in the William H. Amoss Performing Arts Center auditorium at Harford Technical High School in Bel Air.

The presentation lasted about 90 minutes and included performances from the Havre de Grace Elementary and Havre de Grace High School choirs, and the Edgewood High School dance team.

Some of the topics he said he heard regularly at the community meetings included recruiting and retaining teachers, leadership methods, curriculum, career-oriented programs, and community outreach programs.

Bulson said he started each session asking what people think is great about the school system. He said “the people and the relationships” were the first response each time.

“We have great people here,” he said. “We have some very strong relationships.”

He said the school system’s existing partnerships are “one of our greatest assets.” He discussed throughout the presentation how they can be leveraged to make the system better and have students become more engaged and successful.

“We’re going to build on that strength,” Bulson said.

The current budget, that affects everything in the school system, was developed by Bulson’s successor, former Superintendent Barbara Canavan, and adopted by the school board this past June. It includes $80.3 million for health insurance.

Bulson broke down $461.6 million in operating expenses, showing $273.2 million for salaries, $80.3 million for healthcare and $107.9 million for “other” spending.

Early projections call for spending $479.9 million on operations next year, with health insurance increasing to $88.4 million, salaries to $281.3 million and other expenses to $110.1 million.

Bulson recommends the increase in salaries to ensure HCPS keeps up with salary steps, or annual increases, for employees :this year is the final year of a three-year contract with employee unions to fund salary steps and COLAs so workers catch up after years of stagnating wages.

“I don’t think we can go into [next] year without an expectation of not falling behind again. We need to do our steps,” Bulson said.

The problem is a projected nearly $30 million gap between projected revenues and spending for fiscal 2020. Bulson stressed that figure is a rough projection and could change depending on actual revenues — the superintendent typically submits a budget request, based on projected needs, to the school board in December or January. The board can then make adjustments before sending the request on to the county executive.

Bulson presented revenue figures Monday that are unchanged from fiscal 2019 to fiscal 2020, except for the $10.9 million from fund balance, or cash reserves available at the end of the fiscal year, used to balance this year’s budget.

That leaves a gap of $29.2 million between projected revenues of $450.7 million and expenses of $479.9 million next year.

Bulson said the current fund balance is “nearly at zero.” He and his top aides told the school board last week that $3.76 million is available in reserve for an emergency.

Officials must now deal with a projected near-$30 million gap, Bulson said.

“There’s no point in us asking our county government for that much,” he said. “They can’t do it; we have to do our part first.”

Bulson discussed the five “budget development teams” that he has previously announced. The teams include HCPS leaders, employee unions, board members and representatives of the Budget Citizen Advisory Committee.

The first two teams are handling a spending freeze and hiring freeze, which Bulson called “current-year adjustments.”

“The idea is, we do the belt-tightening now because what we don’t spend this year we can roll into the next year,” he said.

The other three teams are working on long-term spending issues, including staffing and deployment of resources, outsourcing/business practices and an employee association leadership council.

Bulson said he has had two meetings with union leaders.

“We talked about how we work together to come up with solutions, because if we try to do this with all these groups in isolation it just doesn’t come together . . . we need to take care of the entire group,” he said.

Safety preparations

Bulson said improving school safety and security includes taking on racial intolerance. He cited testimonials from students about racial issues to the point where one student reported at last week’s Board of Education meeting about feeling unsafe at school.

“We have the right people. We have the right talent; we’re going to figure it out,” he said.

The school system, in partnership with local law enforcement and the county government, will provide Active Assailant Critical Response Training to employees and eventually students.

Officials plan to have school-based administrators trained by the end of 2018 and teachers trained by the end of the current school year, Bulson said.

School system leaders will then work with teachers to determine the best ways to train students to respond to an active assailant, with training tailored to grade levels.

“I have absolute faith that when we put the content in the hands of our instructional experts, all of our teachers, they will help us design the best way to roll this out to our kids,” Bulson said.

Officials hope to have pilot training programs ready for students by next spring, according to Bulson.

“How many times have you seen a flag at half-mast this year?” Bulson asked.

“Too many,” one person replied.

Bulson said he does not recall a year when he has seen so many lowered flags. Flying flags at half-staff has been frequent after local, statewide and national tragedies.

The board is tasked with reconciling its final budget in June after the county and state adopt their budgets in the spring.

Changes from the state

Bulson also discussed upcoming changes at the state level, such as five-star ratings for schools; changes to the PARCC standardized tests; new graduation requirements; and shifts to assess students’ growth as well as their academic proficiency.

The superintendent also laid out his goals for student achievement preparing all students to “check one of these three boxes” — either a high score on at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate assessment to show they are ready for college coursework, taking college classes in high school or earning a license in at least one career area — before graduating.

Bulson encouraged people to attend the Nov. 19 school board meeting, during which he plans to present data. A community budget input night is slated for Nov. 27. Both meetings take place at 6:30 p.m. in the school board meeting room in the A.A. Roberty Building at 102 S. Hickory Ave. in Bel Air.

People can also watch meetings online at http://www.hcps.org/boe/livestream.

Bulson thanked the audience, including school board members, county and municipal leaders, state legislators, Harford Community College leaders, parents and civic activists.

“I thank all of you for being willing to show up and listen, because as I’ve said many times, the answers are going to come from you,” he said.

Bulson finished to enthusiastic applause, and audience members praised him after the event.

“We hired the right man,” school board member Rachel Gauthier said.

Havre de Grace Mayor William T. Martin, who is a teacher at Aberdeen Middle School, praised the superintendent for his “exhaustive survey of the [school system] community” at all levels.

“It’s refreshing to have a superintendent who so openly and willingly engages the community at all levels in trying to move the system forward,” board member Robert Frisch said. “I have great faith that Dr. Bulson is the one that can do that job.”

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