Jim O'Brien had built up plenty of experience with the Cherry Creek School District when he came on as a school board member nearly eight years ago.
Both of his children had attended Homestead Elementary, West Middle School and Cherry Creek High School. He'd played the dutiful part of engaged parent, logging untold hours as a volunteer during games, fundraising events and other school functions. O'Brien also attended meetings of the District Accountability Committee and, in the process, picked up important background about the inner workings of the district's budget.
But all of that experience didn't fully prepare the telecommunications executive and nonprofit manager for the work that was to come. Taking on the mantle of school board member meant accepting a different level of responsibility, one that included up to 25 hours of work in a typical week.
"To be an effective board member, you have to have the time to prepare for board meetings, you have to have the time to visit schools and you have to have the time to interface with district leadership members," O'Brien said. "There's so much to learn. Having been on the school board for almost eight years, I learn something new every day.
"You have to do your homework," he added.
That brand of constant engagement has been a constant theme during O'Brien's service, a stretch that's included roles as treasurer and board president. In that time, he's also taken on a role on the Colorado Association of School Board as president elect, a post that's offered valuable perspective about the bigger picture of public education throughout the state. (CASB also awarded O'Brien the McGuffey Award for outstanding school board leadership in 2013.)
In the process, O'Brien has gleaned valuable insights about the exceptional aspects of Cherry Creek, a district that excels because of the individuals responsible for every level of its operation. O'Brien, who's worked with three different superintendents since joining the board in 2007, said Cherry Creek has always stood out for its constant commitment to students.
"One thing that sets us apart is that we've historically had very high-quality individuals at all levels, be it teachers, folks who support teachers, the leadership team, the school board, the superintendents," he noted. "We're noted for attracting very high-quality people who are devoted to ensuring that our students get a high-quality education. As I got involved as a school board member, I was constantly impressed by the high caliber of the individuals that the district attracts. People like to come to work here."
O'Brien brought his own history of exceptional commitment and expertise to his post as school board member. An Army veteran who served at the Pentagon in the early 1970s, O'Brien went on to receive degrees from Xavier University in Ohio and the University of Colorado. That led to executive posts at Jones Intercable, a Colorado-based telecommunications company, as well as high-profile roles as a business consultant. What's more, O'Brien has served in executive positions at nonprofits including the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation and Freedom Service Dogs, Inc., a company dedicated to connecting rescued dogs with clients that include children with special needs and disabled veterans.
O'Brien has brought all of that corporate and financial experience to bear during his time as a school board member.
"A school district like Cherry Creek is a big enterprise," O'Brien said, pointing to the organization's massive scope and scale. "I ran a billion-dollar public company and there was a lot to learn there, but the most surprising thing as a board member has been the complexity of running a huge organization like this. It's been setting a vision and having people follow that vision."
At the school board level, that effort has meant visiting schools and meeting with district teachers, staff and community members on a weekly basis. It's meant untold hours of research, budget work and firsthand communication with colleagues at all levels of the organization.
For O'Brien, all of that work has been to keep up an academic tradition that's important on a very personal level. O'Brien watched his two sons forge enduring friendships and learn durable lessons at neighborhood schools, and he's worked to make sure those same resources will be in place for the next generation of Cherry Creek students.
"As a parent, it's great when all of the kids in the neighborhood walk to school. My son who has been out of college for four years is still best friends with the people he grew up with in our neighborhood," O'Brien said. "There's a lot of value to the concept of neighborhood schools. We have the largest buildings in these neighborhoods, and we want the community to feel included. That's very powerful."