Harford teachers union president calls proposed teacher cuts 'a necessary evil'

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The head of Harford’s teachers union, who has known since August the cuts announced this week by Superintendent Sean Bulson could be coming, said the news is disheartening, but a “necessary evil.”

Others, however, are reacting sharply to the superintendent’s proposal that Harford County Public Schools eliminate 153 teaching positions and 26 administrative to reduce a $35 million gap in the next budget year between revenues and expenses.

Cutting teachers will have a huge impact on students and increased class size “will lead to more student failure and it makes it harder for all students to learn,” North Harford junior Ryan Blosser said.

All students deserve the chance to learn, he said, “and I feel like that opportunity is being taken away from me.”

Eliminating those 179 positions is expected to save the school system about $13 million, Bulson told members of the Harford County Board of Education Monday night. He said he’s hoping for a $10 million increase in funding from the county, and is looking to reduce spending this fiscal year to generate a fund balance of about $7 million and adjusting the health plan to reduce benefits costs by about $5 million.

Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association, said the move needs to be made.

“We have concerns about some of the numbers at certain schools, but overall, our association has been saying that in an effort to not lay off people, or cut people completely, it is sometimes a necessary evil to transfer folks to other schools,” Crawford-Smick said.

She reiterated Bulson’s comments that the hope that teachers will still have a job.

“It’s definitely disheartening to see some schools lose a significant number of positions, but it’s important to remember they’re cutting positions, not people,” she said.

Since she became HCEA president in August, Crawford-Smick said the superintendent has said that instructional positions would need to be reduced, but it wasn’t until last Friday when he presented the data to the teachers she saw the exact numbers per school.

Bulson said he used formulas to figure out where the reductions would be made — 50 at the elementary level and 103 at the secondary level (59 high school and 44 middle school).

“What the process revealed is that they hadn’t used a formula to deploy teachers in the past,” Bulson said Monday. “We need to continue to find ways to make deployment of our employees more equitable.”

Crawford-Smick has taught at North Harford Middle and North Harford High, which stand to lose 14 and 10 positions, respectively — “two of the most-hardest hit schools,” she said — and her children attend North Harford Middle and North Harford Elementary.

“That is my community, those are my people, so it’s hard to swallow, but in terms of formulas, those are the numbers we have to work with,” Crawford-Smick said. “I’m hoping those numbers will change, but I’m grateful we have the information in December, instead of members finding out the second week of June, which has been the way things have worked in the past.”

Angry student, parents

Blosser used to be proud to say he’s a Harford County citizen, and would gloat about when he traveled throughout the state, but not so much anymore.

“When I see library techs being removed, teachers being removed, I feel like I’m not valued, I feel like I’m just a number in this county,” Blosser said, asking the county council at their meeting Tuesday to fully fund the school system budget.

“Instead of pointing fingers, all officials should be working together toward a common sense way to fully fund the budget,” he said. “I pray you can choose to do the right thing.”

Tricia Hubbard of Abingdon said her son will be in Harford County Public Schools soon and asked the council members why they didn’t “reach out before this had to happen.”

“Harford County Public Schools paints a picture to me that schools are not a priority,” Hubbard said, and asked the council members what they intend to do between now and when they have to vote on the budget.

Tony Rhodes of Fallston knows to the penny how much is spent in the branch of the company he runs, and wanted to know why Harford County Public Schools does not and why the 179 positions proposed to be eliminated can’t be funded. They can be, he said, it’s a matter of how the money is allocated.

“I can’t in good conscience vote for anybody who takes away my kids resources,” he told the council.

Michelle Prieto, who has a first-grader at Red Pump Elementary, said she’s concerned about the increase in class sizes if the proposed cuts are approved.

She sees her daughter’s teacher struggling now, and adding more students to the mix are going to make it worse, she said.

“It’s like they’re not working together yet or they’ve not prioritized students at the top of everything else,” Prieto said. “The highest order of government is to take care of your schools.”

A petition is circulating on social media to “Fully Fund the Education Budget for Harford County Public Schools.” It’s an open letter to Glassman and the Harford County Council, in which those who sign are saying “Please fully fund the education budget and give the schools a fair percentage of the county-wide revenue.”

It has about 3,000 supporters as of 7 a.m. Thursday, according to the website, www.change.org/p/fully-fund-the-education-budget-for-harford-county-public-schools.

‘The time has come’

At least one member of the Harford County Council said Tuesday he has been inundated by phone calls, emails and text messages about the superintendent’s proposal, but he’s not ready to take a position.

“Right now I’m trying to collect more information because I need more education on the issue, to break it down, see what [Bulson] says,” Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents northern Harford County, said.

He has a meeting scheduled for Friday with the superintendent to review his proposal.

Shrodes said Harford County gets the “really, really, really” short end of the stick when it comes to funding form the state, and he encouraged residents to talk with their delegates and senators about the formulas used by the state to determine how state money is distributed.

“I’m a taxpayer, what we put in, we should get back fairly,” he said. “The way the formula is set up, it doesn’t work that way. You don’t find this in other jurisdictions. the state helps them out — they’re not helping us here.”

Shrodes said he hopes when the superintendent says the school system will lose positions, it doesn’t mean people are going to lose their jobs.

“I knew the stuff was going to hit the fan. The time has come,” he said. “This is someone who came to the area with an outside perspective coming in. Now he’s going to give it a shot and I’m going to listen to what he has to say.”

Councilman Joe Woods, who represents the Fallston area, said the council doesn’t have much say or input on Bulson’s proposal.

“It’s unfortunate, but we don’t have much to do with the budget process until the county executive brings it to us,” Woods said.

The budget is due to the Harford County Council from County Executive Barry Glassman by April 1.

Councilman Andre Johnson, in his third meeting as a member of the council, said he doesn’t understand how the school board can be in front of the council asking for a $4 million transfer while at the same time plan to “get rid of” 179 employees and had a $35 million gap.

“I know they are two different issues, but we have to do a better job,” Johnson said, adding he would have liked to have known about Bulson’s proposal before he heard about it in the media.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable for this to come out today — our office was flooded with calls, and no one from the school board gave us the heads up,” Johnson said.

In addition to Glaser, a handful of parents brought their concerns to the Harford County Council at their meeting Tuesday night in Bel Air.

Short-, long-term saving

Earlier this year, Bulson formed five committees to look at short-term and long-term savings.

One of them was to look at a hiring freeze, which has resulted in 94 open positions. Requests have been submitted to fill 29 of them this budget year — 16 have been rejected at the assistant superintendent or executive director level and 13 — primarily special education — were approved by the committee and OK’d by the superintendent, Jean Mantegna, assistant superintendent for human resources, said.

The goal of the spending freeze committee is to generate a surplus for this fiscal year, according to Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services.

The different departments and schools are also tightening their spending, she said, and about $3.5 million in reductions has been identified to contribute to a surplus.

“Everyone is really being very diligent about their budget and if we don’t have to spend it, let’s not going to spend it,” Judd said, but added she’s reviewing all major purchases.

“We still have to operate our schools,” and if something needs to be fixed immediately, there isn’t time to go through committee approval for it, she said.

In addition to teachers and students being off for Christmas, the entire Harford County Public Schools administration will be closed. By closing for three days they had planned to be open – Dec. 26, 27 and 28 – the school system expects to save $7,000 to $10,000 per day, Judd said.

The outsourcing committee is looking at other schools districts and industries to see what they outsource and if it might be appropriate for the school system, said Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations.

The Association Leadership Council is working with the five unions to hear concerns from them about the challenges the school system is facing, said Jeff Fradel, senior manager for staff and labor relations.

The committee created the $500 incentive for employees who notify the school system by Feb. 15 if they are planning to leave this year, he said.

“That will provide us the opportunity to identify openings and position us to best meet the needs of the school, the students and meet the needs of those remaining,” Fradel said.

Despite the looming cuts, Bulson reminded the board of the good in the school system, including the arts, and the a cappella group from Edgewood High School that went Christmas caroling at the administration building earlier Monday during the school day.

“It was absolutely amazing, very inspiring,” Bulson said. “We are going through some very hard times, but I want to make sure we don’t harm those type of things. They are what distinguishes a district.”

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