During his eight years on the Cherry Creek Schools Board of Education, including the past two years as president, Jim O’Brien has spent an incredible amount of time working on behalf of the district’s 54,000 students.
He’s attended 88 regular board meetings, another 88 board study sessions and participated in more than 100 committee meetings. O’Brien has done nearly 50 official school visits and taken part in over 700 school and district events. He’s attended 40 high school graduation ceremonies where he’s shaken hands with at least 6,000 graduates. There’s also the time he’s spent reading reports, meeting with educational experts, talking with state and federal lawmakers and wrestling with complex, sometimes controversial, issues including testing, school safety and school finance.
“To do the job right, you need to spend the time,” said O’Brien, who routinely spends 15 to 20 hours a week on district business as a board member, which is an unpaid, volunteer position.
You’d think that would be more than enough volunteer work for this father of two, now-grown sons who attended Homestead Elementary, West Middle School and Cherry Creek High School. But the volunteer work that began as an engaged elementary school parent and continued to the District Accountability Committee, the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation and the Board of Education, also extends statewide.
O’Brien has served five years as a board member and is the current president of the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB). Established in 1940, CASB represents 172 of Colorado’s 178 school boards. The group works to promote the interests and welfare of the state’s school districts and the more than 889,000 students they serve.
“It gives me the opportunity to interact and network with my colleagues from around the state,” O’Brien said. “That enhances my ability to be president of the Cherry Creek school board. It broadens my understanding of the issues across the state and helps me more effectively advocate for the Cherry Creek School District and CASB.”
As CASB president, O’Brien spent much of the month of September meeting with school board members across the state. He logged 1,941 miles hosting 12 regional meetings in Denver, Breckenridge, Cortez, Grand Junction, La Junta, Limon, Los Alamos, Loveland, Montrose, Pueblo, Steamboat and Sterling.
“It was a great trip. A lot of work, but very rewarding,” O’Brien said of his time meeting with 353 board members, 89 superintendents and 110 school board candidates. “This year we focused on peer-to-peer learning. There was a lot of working with boards, advocacy challenges and discussions about key legislative issues facing the state and how CASB might address those.”
For O’Brien, the visits highlighted both the similarities and the stark differences in the challenges facing Colorado school districts. For example, in Cortez, a community in southwestern Colorado with a high poverty rate, a critical issue is feeding children on Monday mornings, because many haven’t eaten much during the weekend. In Karval, a town of 225 people in Lincoln County, about 80 miles east of Colorado Springs, the school district has just one building and 80 students in grades K-12. The superintendent is also the principal and bus driver. Yet the greatest challenge is attracting teachers so the district provides an on-campus apartment as an additional incentive.
But small or large, rural or urban, all Colorado school districts share common concerns about issues including public school funding, unfunded government mandates and assessments. CASB plays an important role in educating the public and public officials about those issues and advocating for common sense solutions.
“During the past couple of years we worked really hard at reducing the negative factor,” O’Brien said. “We worked really hard on the Claire Davis bill, on the safety of our students, on health and wellness issues and the need for mental health support.”
Yet he is very worried about the future of public education in Colorado, fearing that some rural districts will be forced to close as the state reaches a school funding crisis.
“The funding issue is not being addressed,” O’Brien lamented. “It needs constitutional reform. We’re not talking 10 years, we’re talking probably three or four or five years until it is a real crisis.
“There is a big disconnect at the Legislature in terms education, in terms of what’s going on and the effect of the legislation they’re passing. There are a lot of burdens that have been put on school districts. I’m very concerned about the state of education across Colorado going forward and you really get a sense of that as you travel around the state.”
O’Brien is one of four Cherry Creek School board members who have served on the CASB board, but he is the only one who has been CASB president. When his term as CASB president ends in December, he will serve another year in the role of past president.
However, his days as president of the Cherry Creek Board of Education are numbered. After serving two terms as the representative of Director District A, he is term-limited and will step down after the Nov. 3 election results are certified.
“It’s hard to believe how fast eight years went by,” he said. “I will miss the people, the partnership of the board working with all of our employees to really make this an excellent district. It is a very gratifying volunteer job. You feel really good about what you’re doing because you’re working on behalf of kids.”