Sean O'Brien | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

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Sean O'Brien

Candidate for Wake County Board of Education District 6


Name as it appears on the ballot: Sean O’Brien
Full legal name, if different:
Date of birth: August 18, 1969
Home address: 2201 Windy Woods Drive, Raleigh
Mailing address, if different from home:
Campaign Web site:
Occupation & employer: Director of Business & Curriculum Development, SAS
Home phone: (919) 834-3663
Work phone: (919) 531-4173
Cell phone: (919) 539-1739

1. If elected, what are your top priorities for the school board?

My top two priorities are to change the focus from aggregate school performance to individual student growth and to restore public confidence in the school board and school system.

Focus on Individual Student Growth

I want to change our focus from aggregate school scores to individual student achievement, placing the emphasis on individual learning gains.

Schools exist to improve the knowledge and skills of individual students. Yet, school performance scores, as currently presented, are at best an indirect measure.

Currently we report year-over-year end-of-grade passage rates within a given grade. This kind of reporting is often misleading, as a change in the underlying student population significantly affects the school score. There are generally accepted techniques for measuring individual student gain without administering additional tests.

Restore Public Confidence in How We Conduct School Business

We have excellent schools in Wake County, but the past two years have seen controversy that has divided our communities and diminished public support for our school system. This reduces the likelihood of getting the next school construction bond passed.

From coercive student assignment policies which were ruled illegal, to real estate transactions without appraisals, to cutting pay raises for teachers while maintaining them for administrators, to the demagnetization of schools – the school board has brought legitimate questions upon how it conducts business and makes its decisions.

The public will only consent to funding new schools if they believe that the board is doing the right things with its money and producing strong academic results.

2. What is there in your record as a public official or other experience—e.g., career, community service—that demonstrates your ability to be effective as a board member? Please be as specific as possible about the relevance of your accomplishments to your goals for the board.

I have consistently innovated and launched new businesses and programs against existing organizational norms.

I have worked at SAS Institute for the past 10 years. There I am the Director of Business and Curriculum Development, launching and managing three multi-million dollar education technology businesses.

Despite reluctance from our mature classroom education business, I put together a small innovation team to launch Live Web, our virtual education business. This is now the fastest growing part of our business. The success was accomplished by identifying talented people, by focusing on the work instead of politics, and by measuring results – not by measuring how it complied with published rules and norms.

I also manage a curriculum development group of 17 people. When I inherited this department they were completing 44 courses a year. (The average tenure of team members was 14 years.) To improve productivity we put in place new procedures designed to give more decision-making autonomy to individual team members and developed new computer applications to track work progress. Last year this department, with nearly the same people in place, completed 226 courses with no new staff. Change can be made.

Prior to joining SAS I was the first Director of the Wake County Day Incarceration Center. There I worked to define, launch and manage the operation of a young offender diversion program designed to provide a GED, vocational training, and other support services. In many ways this was an alternative school.

The first day on this job literally started with a blank sheet of paper and a program title. I worked with existing criminal justice system organizations, Wake Tech, mental health organizations, and Wake County government to define, contract, launch and execute the program.

I have owned and operated a private business, a consulting company focused on crime research. Through this work, I have studied and analyzed crime all across North Carolina. I learned the deep social costs of failure to educate our young.

I grew up on welfare and qualified for free and reduced lunch my entire school tenure. While in third grade I participated in a classroom pull-out program that took students to the local college on a regular basis. There local college students taught us regular classes. This had a terrific effect on me, leading me to believe that college was a reachable goal.

I remembered this program when I enrolled at Assumption College, only 5 or so miles from the housing project where I grew up and the elementary school I attended. I started a programming called “Running Against Drugs,” modeled after the program in which I participated. We brought a group of elementary school students to the campus to participate in similar activities designed to show how real college was and how attainable it could be.

I believe this speaks to my passion for striving for a system that focuses on real educational achievement.

Building consensus is energetic work. Building new programs requires dedication to task, trust in others, stark honesty about a situation, and willingness to change to succeed. I have been fortunate to be presented with several professional situations where this kind of action resulted in real improvement.

I believe these skills can be useful to the school board.

3. The Independent’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to the board help further that goal?

Economic history is the precursor to all other histories, including the ascendance of a just community. Today, economic history is directly driven by the knowledge level of our society.

The strength of our society requires an educated populace.

The wealth divide in America is primarily a skills and education divide. People with a college degree now earn 70% more than people without, compared to a 30% education wage difference in the 1970’s.

I understand the massive social and human costs associated with an under-educated class. I was educated in public schools and believe that the academic success of public schools is a first-mover in bringing about a just society. A just community cannot be wrought simply by redistributing economic benefits. We must actually educate people.

My election will advance this goal by changing the focus to measuring and advancing individual student learning.

4. Wake schools are known for a commitment to economic diversity, but the goal of having no more than 40 percent of kids eligible for free and reduced meal plans in any school is slipping. Do you think the board should be more rigorous about adhering to its diversity goal? Less rigorous? Or is it getting things about right?

I think there is a higher goal that the board should be more rigorous about – individual student achievement. Improving the life direction of the economically disadvantaged is singularly resultant from imparting academic growth in those individual students.

My review of school performance data suggests that no program, no school calendar, no magnet program is having a significant impact on improving the performance of the economically disadvantaged. Lacy Elementary, among the very best performing schools for the economically disadvantaged (E.D.), has only 58.2% of its E.D. students passing both math and reading end-of-grade tests, according to 2005-2006 Education First NC School Report Cards.

By establishing a county-wide effort to seek true student gain data we will be armed with more robust information about what works. From this we can identify true best practices and change those not yielding results.

Simply adhering to a long held assumption because it is a long held assumption is not a best practice. The current policy appears to attempt to minimize the impact of low performing economically disadvantaged students on whole school scores.

The continued strength of our society requires that we raise academic achievement among all students, particularly the economically disadvantaged. This requires new thinking, new approaches, and wider latitude to experiment at the school level, backed by real measures of student learning.

5. With 7,000-8,000 new students a year and money short, the board adopted a policy of making every new elementary school a year-round school. Do you support that policy? Or, if not, what alternatives would you support to meet the enrollment crunch?

I do not support the way that policy was implemented and rolled out at the time.

The policy went beyond new schools, converting existing schools to year-round as well. Further, the coercive assignment policy that was used, coupled with the perceived lack of public input, turned off many parents that would otherwise have accepted year-round schools. This diminished public support for the school board decision, reducing the likelihood of support for future school construction bond measures.

That said, I think it is very easy, and not usually productive to the discussion, to second guess decisions with the benefit of hindsight.

Further, the question of support is mute now that Judge Manning has ruled the policy to be illegal. Had the school board implemented the policy now in effect, conversion to year-round with defined choice options for traditional school, I believe we would have had greater adoption and support for the policy, without having a legal ruling limiting future options.

Within the context of the current assignment and conversion debate, I support a policy of choice from among diverse offerings (traditional, year-round, magnets, and charter schools).

I worked in one of North Carolina’s first year-round schools. My wife taught in both traditional calendar and year-round elementary schools. I believe that year-round schools are as effective as traditional schools and ought to be considered simply because of the facility utilization gains. However, many studies point to the power of choice in parent participation in their schools. ( We cannot separate these two ideas.

Wake also offers terrific magnet programs, and choice is a key component to its success.

No policy dealing with our growing enrollment is complete without aggressively adding classroom capacity. That means new buildings. This is where it all comes together for me.

The last school construction bond narrowly passed. Recent school board decisions have diminished public support for the school board and increased the risk that the next bond will be rejected. Consequently, all long-term assignment policies are at risk. The remedy for this is to change the tone of the school board. The easiest way to do this is to make a fresh start with some new members on the board.

6. How’s the board handling the annual reassignment issue, in your opinion?

I think that reassignment has been one of the most challenging policies that the school board has had to deal with. I don’t think there is a policy that would make everyone happy.

Regardless of the assignment criteria, given that growth is both on the outskirts and within existing communities, there will be people reassigned to different schools.

The board has had plans that were not well communicated to the public. But they appear to be getting better. I am encouraged to see them working with the operations research staff at NC State. This will help make assignment decisions more impartial and fair.

7. Some board members have spoken out in favor of impact fees on new development in Wake County or, alternatively, an Adequate Public Facilities ordinance that would limit residential growth to available school slots. Do you support either idea or both?

Education benefits everyone in our community; economically and by the improved strength of our society. As such, education ought to be funded by the broadest possible means.

I am against impact-fees for school construction because they are too narrow. They place a perverse burden on new residents to both fund new schools, through the impact fees, and pay off old school construction bonds, through their property taxes.

The societal and economic benefits of Wake County’s strong educational system extend much beyond Wake County borders to the rest of North Carolina. The idea of support for an educated population is legally enshrined in the North Carolina Constitution. I support a vigorous effort to lobby the legislature to take up its proper responsibility to support education in North Carolina and fund school construction across the state .

8. The Wake Commissioners estimate that $3 billion to $4 billion in additional school bond issues will be needed over the next eight years. But bonds don’t happen unless the school board asks. As a board member, can you foresee supporting bond issues of that magnitude? Why or why not?

First, the school system must demonstrate tight fiscal constraint before asking for additional money.

Long-term financing through bonds is a responsible way to pay for long-lived capital projects, like new school construction. As much as it does not make sense to pay cash up front for our homes, it is not a good use of capital to pay cash up front for schools. I would support bond issues to support school construction needs.

But this is not adequate. We must also explore private-public partnerships as alternative means to fund school construction and raise the cap on charter schools.

9. The school board’s goal of having 95 percent of all students achieving at grade level seems to be just out of reach, with past gains now halted. What’s your view of this goal, and how (or whether) to try to reach it?

This is a good goal. But it must be reinforced with measures of individual student growth or learning gain. This is a more direct measure of how well our schools, programs, and teachers are advancing the individual students in their care.

These new measures will allow us to look deeper into why we have plateaued and which schools, programs, and teachers are making the biggest difference.

10. What steps, if any, would you advocate to improve educational outcomes for at-risk students and to reduce dropout rates?

To improve educational outcomes I would start by measuring individual student growth (outlined extensively above). We must know who and what is having an effect to know what to adopt.

To reduce drop out rates I recommend that we start a regional vocational technical high school. Based on voluntary enrollment, the school would provide a school-to-career option to self-identified non-college bound students. To start the program, we should explore a partnership with Wake Technical Community College.

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