New Harford superintendent urges early discussions on budget, seeks community input

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Sean Bulson, the new superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, is filling composition notebooks weeks before the new school year begins.

Those notebooks are full of information and ideas, none more important than getting an early start on developing the next fiscal year’s budget, that he wants to incorporate as he leads the school system forward.

As part of his information gathering, he’s working to schedule at least six community meetings — one in each county council district — as he continues a whirlwind effort to meet with the HCPS and broader Harford communities.

Bulson, who took over as superintendent for the retired Barbara Canavan on July 2, said he hopes to hold the community forums next month as he continues to gather feedback about the 38,000 student school system. The 2018-19 school year starts Sept. 4 in Harford County.

He especially wants to hear peoples’ views about next year’s budget as early as possible.

“I really want to be building a relationship with our community partners on that, with the idea of getting meaningful information in front of people as soon as possible so we can have those discussions start as early as possible,” Bulson said during Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

The September sessions will not be related to the HCPS budget alone, “but of course that will be an important part of that conversation,” Bulson said.

Dates for the community sessions must be finalized, but the superintendent hopes to have the bulk of them in mid-September.

Bulson came to Harford County via the University of North Carolina System. He has previously been superintendent of the Wilson County schools in North Carolina and a community superintendent, administrator and teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

He is working through his entry plan, which involves learning as much as possible about HCPS, meeting with people inside and outside of the school system and setting goals and strategies for the future.

He has been making the rounds at each of the county’s 50 schools to meet with administrative staff. He said last month that he also had been meeting with individuals or small groups of people suggested by each of the 10 school board members. He has more such meetings this week.

He plans to present his findings of his orientation activities during a community event in October; that date must be finalized, too.

“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 feel very, very passionate about at all times. There’s nothing that drives our energy more than what we want to do for our kids, and that comes up in every conversation.”

He said he has already filled two composition books with notes from meetings he has had so far.

Bulson said he received about six more notebooks from his staff in anticipation of the additional information he will receive.

“It’s a lot and it’s complicated, and I have a great team to help explain the work, but I also have a great board here to help confront those things that we decide to look at,” he said.

Bulson has expressed prior concerns about the school system budget — he is working with a $461.7 million operating budget for the current fiscal year that was developed by his predecessor, Canavan, and adopted by the school board in June. More than 80 positions were cut, and $11 million transferred from the operating fund cash reserves to balance that budget before it could be adopted.

“I know you did a lot of work in June, the night that I signed my contract,” he told board members, which elicited a laugh from them, as the same meeting went past 1 a.m. the next day. “In some cases, maybe some of the feedback that came then would have been much more useful in the fall.”

Bulson said he “can’t wait until the end of October to start thinking about the budget.”

He encouraged the public to participate in the community meetings with him in September, as well as sessions hosted by the board and HCPS administration later in the year that are about the budget.

“I’m collecting quite a bit [of information], but I’m one person,” he said. “This is a community endeavor, it’s built on relationships. I’ve seen the opportunities for so many great relationships in this community, so we’ll continue to build on that.”

Jeanne Smith, a member of the Together We Will-Harford County/Upper Chesapeake community group, urged Bulson to consider “as one of your priorities and goals” greater funding to hire more staff to work with students in the area of mental health, such as pupil personnel workers, school counselors and school psychologists.

Speaking during the public comment portion of Monday’s board meeting, Smith cited prior concerns expressed by HCPS officials May, during a presentation to the board on mental health services for students, about not having enough employees dedicated to helping students with their mental health needs.

Smith said that, “time and again,” people who have carried out deadly shooting attacks at schools in the U.S. have been students or former students who have mental health issues.

She said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman has provided funding in his fiscal 2019 budget to hire additional Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputies to serve as school resource officers, to provide security against school shootings. Smith said that, to her, hiring more SROs “is more of a reactionary measure, a bit like trying to stop a horse once outside of the gate.”

“It seems prudent to look at investing in our students by providing the best and most comprehensive mental health services that we can,” added Smith, who said she would send a letter to Glassman about her concerns.

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