Elections » Candidate Questionnaires

Flint O'Brien

Candidate for Chatham County School Board

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FlintOBrien.jpg

Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Flint O'Brien

Date of Birth: September 28, 1964

Campaign Web Site: flintobrien.com

Occupation & Employer: Director of EMS Software, Hatteras Networks

Years lived in Chatham County: 6



1. Why are you seeking the office of Chatham County School Board member?

The reason I'm running for Chatham School Board is that I have the skills and experience to solve two really big problems. We have a lot of overcrowded and outdated schools and, unfortunately; Chatham doesn't have a good record for good schools. We need school board members who are absolutely committed to improving education for all kids across the county. My wife and I have two children at North Chatham in 2nd and 4th grade. My kids will be in the Chatham County School System for the next 10 years.

I have also demonstrated my commitment by: attending school board meetings for five years (almost every meeting in the last 2 years), being active in our local PTA, and leading a local parent-citizen advocacy group (GoodSchoolz.org) seeking to build and renovate community schools and improve the quality of education across Chatham.

Change won't happen overnight. My vision is that you will pick up an Independent, four years from now, and the headline will read, "Chatham Schools Made Dramatic Improvements in the Last 4 Years." Another headline I'd like to see is, "Chatham Parents Desert Charter Schools for Better Performing Public Schools."

I am optimistic because I've been part of a growing grass roots movement working to improve all Chatham County schools. The GoodSchoolz group I founded is dedicated to quality schools through citizen advocacy. We've worked cooperatively with the school board, teachers, parents, and administrators to address these critical issues for all of our children and for the future of our entire community. I will use that same energy and cooperative spirit as a school board member.

2. If elected, what is your one top priority for the Chatham County school system? What specific steps would you take to accomplish this goal?

We do have two problems that are almost completely separate: overcrowded/outdated facilities and poor academic performance. I'll answer the facility issues with the question 3.

Every Child Must be Guaranteed a High Quality Education

Every child needs a quality education. Every parent wants their child to have an education that provides a solid foundation of knowledge and critical thinking for living and working in the 21st century.

The school system is the biggest "knob" our county has for economic development. If we're going to attract clean green jobs for the 21st century, we've got to have an education system that is preparing our kids to fill and even create those jobs.

My Story:

About two years ago, I was in a school board meeting and I realized that the board of education never talks about improving education. I took it upon myself to see what we could do to dramatically improve academics in Chatham. Since then, I've read all the books and research I could find. I've visited every school. I've interviewed every principal in Chatham except one. I've talked to PTAs, parents, teachers, and central office staff. Our group, GoodSchoolz.org, met with the previous superintendent, Dr. Hart, monthly on this issue. We've already met with the new superintendent, Robert Logan. The big question I like to ask is, "If you were superintendent and money was no object, what would you do to improve academic performance."

From these efforts and my professional background, here are the steps I would take.

Step 1: Develop a professional, collaborative relationship with our new Superintendent to improve education with measureable and attainable goals.

I have been critical, at times, of current and past school boards in Chatham, but all the evidence so far is that the new superintendent is top notch. The current School Board has done an excellent job with the hiring of Robert Logan.

The goal now is to have a very professional environment to support and work with the superintendent to improve our schools. Good superintendents are in high demand. If we go through a new superintendent every two years, we'll never get anywhere. The board needs to work with the superintendent to set reasonable, achievable, measurable goals; and then remove any barriers so the superintendent can succeed. Micromanaging and second-guessing will not work. A professional working environment is absolutely key.

In the past, some citizens and even school board members spent too much time attacking the Superintendent and his or her staff; even grandstanding and questioning people's motives. My style is more of a quiet, ask questions, problem-solving, and listening approach to leadership than my opponent. I believe my collaborative approach would better compliment the majority of our current progressive school board.

Step 2: Professional Educational Leadership is Key

I'm going to insure that we have the very best superintendent, the very best principals, and the very best teachers. I'm looking for people who read research, stay current with best practices and they know how to build teams and consensus among all stakeholders -- students, parents, teachers, and the community.

Teachers are wary of new initiatives because they're already working as hard as they can. With better leadership and bigger visions, we can work smarter, not harder.

Step 3: Hire, Retain, and Mentor Great Teachers

Study after study has shown that the biggest impact for educating a child in a classroom is not the latest program or initiative; it's the teacher. Good teachers get great results! The competition for teachers is fierce and we're surrounded by counties that pay more. We need to be competitive! My job will be to make Chatham Schools the place where teachers want to work and never want to leave.

See my web site section, Teachers Matter!, for how we can recruit and retain great teachers and the difference in pay for different counties. http://flintobrien.com/teachersmatter.html

Step 4: Goals and Data

There's a quote from Yogi Berra, "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

I've been going to board meetings for 5 years. I've been to almost all the board meetings in the last two years. The surprising thing is that the Board of Education never talks about improving education! The Chatham County School System doesn't have any specific goals or targets for improving education. We do have a new superintendent, Robert Logan. Logan and I have discussed this and he assures me that he will set specific targets for improving education (and that's what he did when he was superintendent in Ashville).

We need specific measurable goals for improving academics. We need to identify best practices for achieving those goals. We need to publish how we're doing. Every school's web site should show the plan for facility repairs/improvements, the plan for improving academics, and the current performance to the plan.

One of the problems we have now is that the only data we're publishing is No Child Left Behind (NCLB) data. This only measures the struggling students. While this is a critical group, we shouldn't ignore everyone else. In North Carolina, we have a very good system for measuring how we're doing, NC ABC scores. These measure the growth of each student -- how much they learn in one school year.

Step 5: Close the Achievement Gap

Our minorities are falling behind. African American kids, in particular, are 25 points behind White students. We also have a very large English as a Second Language (ESL) population that is behind. We need to identify best practices to close the achievement gap. We're not going to succeed unless we enlist the help of minority communities and all communities.

The achievement gap is the biggest challenge for public schools that the charter schools don't have to deal with (at least in Chatham). While charter schools look like they're doing better than public schools; the truth is, they look good because they have a minimal number of minority students. When charter schools report their scores, their minority students are performing at the same level as the public schools, but their numbers are so few it doesn't affect the school's scores.

Step 6: Everyone Working Together

We have got to get everyone working together -- East and West, newcomer and native, parents and teachers. Everyone wants efficient, high quality schools. We need to get everyone on the same page and working toward this common goal. Working together means a fair process based on facts, strong communication, and the inclusion of all communities. Again, I believe my prior proven collaborative leadership efforts and my "listen to all voices" and "get the facts first" leadership style will help in this process.

Step 7: School Funding

One of the schools board's biggest responsibilities is to help the county commissioners by making the case to the public for funding education.

I've been to every school in the county. I've talked to almost every principal. If you actually go in the schools and talk to principals, teachers, and parents; you realize very quickly how cut-to-the-bone school funding is. Every community in Chatham talks about the problems of having half-teachers that are shared between two schools, no funds to buy the calculators that are required on End Of Grade tests, etc. Each community thinks they're getting the short end of the stick, but the fact is that every school is in the same boat -- they are not fully funded.

When the County Commissioners held public meetings for the new budget this year in Pittsboro, the anti-tax folks were there in full force. No one was there to speak up for funding the schools. The commissioners got an earful about wasteful spending -- no one talked about improving education or funding education. I am a fiscal conservative, but I'm also socially progressive, so I believe in funding education -- as do the vast majority of Chatham citizens. Note: I did here that school board member Norman Clark gave an effective impassioned speech in favor of needed education funds at the second meeting in Siler City.

The County Commissioners do want to fund education and they've made great strides in the past few years. One of the schools board's biggest responsibilities is to help the county commissioners by making the case to the public for funding education. When we have public meetings for the budget next year, we need to pack the house with all the people who are demanding that the schools do more.

Step 8: Accurate, Timely, & Effective Communication

I can't stress the communication issue enough. Chatham is riddled with rumors, unfounded accusations, and misinformation. This is exacerbated by a local Internet bulletin board with anonymous postings. Walk into one of our schools and you will hear all sorts of unfounded rumors. It's not just "who said what"; it's also misinformation about teacher health plans, salary issues, etc.

The schools system has got to get ahead of this by communicating the facts in a timely and effective manner. The school system has allowed an information vacuum to exist and others have filled it. The school system and each school must publish FAQs for many, many topics and keep them current. They need to be accessible on every school's web site, the central system's web site, and sent home for parents that don't have Internet access. They also need to be translated for our large Latin population.

3. What are the three most important things the school board can do to improve and maintain the quality of public education while coping with the influx of thousands of new students as a result of the building boom happening now in Chatham?

Again, I see growth as a fairly separate issue to improving academics. For example, most of our best schools are the most overcrowded. When we're talking about growth, here are the top 3 issues for the school board.

1. East & West Working Together

Working together means a fair process based on facts, strong communication, and the inclusion of all communities. We need everyone on board to keep moving this county forward.

The growth in residents is almost exclusively in the eastern side of the county and there's no end in sight. The difficulty is that the large growth communities are the ones who need new schools built. If you've lived in this county for 30 years, it doesn't seem fair that your kid's going to the 50 year old school; while the people who just moved in go to the new school. It doesn't make sense to build the new schools outside of the high growth areas. Many students' bus rides are already 2 hours - one way! All schools need to be located in close proximity to where the kids are. The feelings are exacerbated because all the schools in the county have long standing neglected maintenance and needed renovations.

2. Rock-solid planning.

It takes 10 years to plan, acquire funds, design, and build a school in Chatham. With timelines like that, our planning has got to be rock solid. We need a 20 year plan for building and renovating community schools.

Redistricting is another painful process for high growth areas and requires rock solid planning. Every time you build or expand a school, you have to look at who's going to that school. We need an open process based on facts, strong communication and the inclusion of all communities. We need to have these discussions a year or two before we actually move students. We need a lot of public input and we need to give people time to make other plans if they want to find alternatives.

3. School Funding.

Building and renovating schools costs money. This money does compete indirectly with paying for teachers and programs to improve academics. One of the school boards biggest responsibilities is to make the case to the public for funds for education. Again, this should be based on facts, strong communication, and the inclusion of all communities.

4. What is there in your public record or other experience that demonstrates your ability to be an effective school board member? Be specific. What public or private boards/commissions have you served on and what have you accomplished?

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE:

I am Director of EMS Software at Hatteras Networks. I was hired to turn around a dysfunctional team. They weren't delivering software on time. Everyone was working 60 -80 hr. weeks and complaining that there wasn't time to "do it right." I convinced the group (and the company) that we needed to spend some time to start using best practices for software development, then we would be much more productive. I listened to the issues, addressed the root causes, and removed any barriers to high productivity. I was there about two months when we made our first deliverable -- on time; and we haven't missed a date yet.

During the Dot Com Era, I also founded and ran a successful startup company, CalendarCentral. I served as the CEO until we grew to a size where I could hire a more experienced CEO and I served as CTO (Chief Technology Officer). I recruited a very experienced set of corporate leaders to serve on the board of my company. With this experience I learned finance and how to work productively with a board.

Starting and running a company was a tremendous education. I went from being a heads-down software developer to an innovative, transformative leader. I know how to focus on helping people succeed and base my success on the success of those working for me. My job is to provide a profession environment, make sure everyone knows what's expect of them, then remove any barriers so everyone can succeed. I like working with very professional teams that focus on issues and solutions, not personalities or turf. I have a lot of experience and believe in using data to drive decisions.

COMMUNITY & GOVERNMENT EXPERIENCE

I am a founding director of a local grass roots organization, GoodSchoolz.org (see details in question 1 or go to GoodSchoolz.org).

I've been going to Chatham School Board meetings for 5 years. I've gone to almost all the board meetings for the last 2 years. I have spent an enormous amount of time educating myself on how the school board functions, how decisions are made, and who the influencers are.

My biggest accomplishment to date is that I was a leader in our group, GoodSchoolz.org, that got the current school board to commit to building two community schools in the critically overcrowded Northeast Chatham. My current task is to take this experience and work toward improving academics for all schools across Chatham.

EDUCATION:

1989 Master of Arts in Computer Science - Mississippi State University1988 Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science - Mississippi State University

5. In paying for new schools and other county needs, what role would you like to see assigned to:

a. Property taxes?

Property taxes are the primary source of revenue for Chatham. We need to work on economic development to get more clean, green jobs in Chatham so we can tip our tax base toward corporate taxes. Of course, improving the academic performance of our schools will certainly be a major boost to our effort to bring in new good paying jobs to better balance our current residence-dominated tax base with more commerce and industry.

The downside of growth in housing is that residents on fixed incomes (like retirees) and farmers are hit especially hard as property values rise around them. I was in California and saw the long term effects of this first hand. California property taxes were rising so fast, the citizens passed Proposition 13, which froze property taxes. California has been struggling with inadequate public services, like schools, ever since.

I supported the Land Transfer Tax (LTT) proposal because it is really a deferred property tax and the Commissioners promised to use 85% of the money on schools. It's a better tax for people on fixed incomes, because they don't pay the tax until they sell their property -- that's when they have the money.

Even though I supported and promoted LTT, it wasn't what Chatham and other county governments asked for from the state legislature, thanks to the undue influence of the real estate and developers lobby. We only received authorization for a .04% tax compared to the .1% we had requested. This meant the county had to retain a significant portion of its more regressive school impact fees. I would also have preferred if the county commissioners had committed themselves to spend 100% of money on schools I was also concerned that future commissioners would not spend the money on education or that current education funding sources would shrink. Thus, while this tax would have helped it would only have been a temporary measure until we could getter better balance in our tax base that puts less of the property tax burden on residences.

b. Impact fees?

On the one hand, impact fees are a tax that goes directly to the cost of growth and 100% must be spent on schools. The downside is that it's a more regressive tax than LTT or property taxes. This is because a $100,000 house pays the same price as a million dollar home. For this reason, I don't see it as a fair tax. Some have mentioned that there are legal reasons why this tax isn't structured more progressively. Both houses in my example will contribute the same number of kids attending schools.

c. Year-round schools?

I have friends in year-round schools in Wake County. The best that I can say is that they are resigned to it. I haven't seen any reports of actual savings because of year-round schools. There are obvious scheduling problems for families that have children on different tracks.

I think the problem for Chatham is that the only way it would work is if it was voluntary. Unfortunately, Chatham is so spread out, a year round school would also be located far away with long bus rides and greater transportation expenses. For this reason, I don't think it would work. In short, I don't appose it outright, but I haven't seen any reasons to support it.

d. More charter schools?

I have mixed feelings on charter schools. I like that parents have a choice. I don't like that our community is fragmented. My neighbors go to about a half dozen schools.

I grew up in a town where everyone went to the local public school, because it was the best school. My wife and I grew up in public schools. We went to public universities. We moved to Chatham so our kids could go to the local public school.

I am worried that Chatham is slipping into an era of haves and have-nots. Woods Charter asked each parent to chip in $4,000 this year. Woods is a good school, but it's also packed with middle class kids -- the highest performing demographic.

Charter schools are a symptom of the failure of our public schools. I don't think more or less charter schools will fix any problems. I've been working to fix the problem instead of running away from it. That's why I'm running for school board.

As I understand their origin, charter schools were designed to provide parents a choice in educational approaches, promote innovation in education, and provide competition to improve the local public schools. So, I would prefer to focus on creating choices and innovation in educational approaches within the public school system. One example of that is the state New Schools project which encourages local high schools to be divided into smaller schools within a school based on students interests and learning styles. I would strongly push for the schools to consider applying to transform one of our local high schools with this state-supported model of innovation.

e. Sales tax?

It's regressive, so it's not a good tax.

f. Other revenue-raising or cost-cutting methods?

I like that Chatham County Commissioners have requiring that the county build LEED certified green schools. They are good for the community, good for the students, and they save money over a few short years with reduced maintenance and operations costs. What more could you ask for!

There are lots of ideas for sharing facilities that I support. When I grew up, the high school and middle school were next to one another and shared one large cafeteria. There were two lunch periods for the middle school and two for the high school. I also would like to hear more about building athletic facilities that are shared between the school kids and the larger community. I haven't heard of any downsides as long as any security issues are resolved.

6. Do you have children? If yes, do/did they attend Chatham County schools? If so, please sum up your experience as a public school parent and what you would do as a school board member to improve parents' and students' experience. If your children did not attend Chatham public schools, please state where they do/did attend school and explain why what you would do to make the school system more attractive to parents who reject it as an option for their children.

My wife and I have two kids that have always been at North Chatham School. They are in 2nd and 4th grade. We moved to Chatham because it seemed like a great place to raise a family -- we were right! We love living in Chatham and sending our kids to our local public school.

I've already talked a lot about school improvement, but let me say two things here. There are a lot of parents that have kids on a school bus for two hours -- each way! Chatham is a sparse county, but it's obvious we have to buy some busses or find other solutions to reduce bus time. Building community schools would also help a lot (put the school where the kids are!).

Another issue that we've seen is that Chatham schools tend to push parents away. A lot of parents want to volunteer time to help, but are told, "No thanks." We need more community involvement if we are to improve public education. We need to train teachers on how to build teams and use parents and volunteers to improve education.

I have also spoken with Superintendent Logan about doing customer and employee surveys. He said that he did them in his last superintendent job, so he's definitely on board.

I have been encouraging PTAs to be more involved in each school's academic improvement and success. PTAs have become fundraising machines and sponsors for school events. I believe that if PTA meetings spent some time on academic improvement, they would get a lot more parents involved. Teachers could give short courses (15min) for parents on education topics (like why vocabulary is critical and how to grow your child's vocabulary). Parents and teachers could discuss opportunities to improve academics in each school and enlist volunteers to help.

7. In general, what is your opinion of the job Superintendent Logan is doing?

I have spoken and sat down with Robert Logan many times and have seen him in action at board meetings. I am very happy with his performance. We need to do everything we can to support him reaching his goals for improving Chatham education.

8. The Independent's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

I am a fiscal conservative, but I'm also socially progressive (as are most Americans). I am running against the candidate who was encouraged to run by the Chatham Conservative Voice and is affiliated with Americans for Prosperity (a national anti-tax, anti-government, and extremely socially conservative advocacy organization). That leadership backed Bunkey Morgan, supported district voting, opposed the LTT, and opposes the current county commissioner leaders. We have a majority of progressive leaders on the county board and we need to continue moving forward in the direction that our current school board and the new superintendent are leading us now.

There is no better example of a just community than one that guarantees all children a quality education. The local public schools are also the place where different neighborhoods and people of different backgrounds meet, interact, and come together. The local public schools are the largest employer in the county, so having a diverse hiring policy helps the community with good jobs and serves the educational needs of our diverse student population.

I am concerned about the lack of constructive interaction between East and West Chatham. It makes for a very difficult and painful government.

There are more people in the East, so at some level, voters in the East can determine who is elected in all districts. Ideally, there needs to be some form of equitable power sharing when we redraw the voting districts after the 2010 census. I've been asking around for ideas and I haven't heard of any solutions yet. Certainly, electing board members that believe in fair and open processes is a step in the right direction.

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