John O’Brien’s journey to becoming superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District started in the parking lot of Homer High School. It was from there that he called his wife in Maine and asked what she thought about moving to the Kenai Peninsula, where he had been visiting from out of state.
“Go ahead and apply,” O’Brien remembers his wife saying about a job opening with the district. “They’ll never hire some guy from Maine.”
When O’Brien steps down as superintendent on June 30, it will cap the end of 16 years of service to the district, during which time he served as the principal of Nikiski Middle/High School, as KPBSD’s director of secondary education, as the assistant superintendent of instruction and finally as superintendent. Of those positions, however, the educator has a clear favorite.
“I think being a school principal is the absolute best job in education,” O’Brien said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t miss being a principal. Having that close contact and being able to build those relationships personally with staff and students at the building level, and with parents and really feel like you’re part of that community.”
The KPBSD board of education had just concluded a round of interviews for candidates vying to replace Sean Dusek as superintendent when they placed the 1 a.m. call to O’Brien in the spring of 2019.
“The night they had interviews, [the board] called me in and asked me if I would be willing to take on the interim superintendent position just for one year,” O’Brien said. “I didn’t apply for the position because I knew when I was going to be retiring and I wasn’t going to take a position or apply for a position knowing I wasn’t going to be able to be there for, you know, four or five years.”
O’Brien’s tenure as superintendent, however, was anything but easy going. He was immediately tasked with responding to the Swan Lake Fire, which closed the corridor between the central peninsula and Cooper Landing and forced some student populations to evacuate. He remembers the air quality being so bad Cooper Landing students had to wear masks and that the district was not allowing itinerant staff to travel to the area.
“Talk about baptism by fire,” O’Brien said.
On the immediate heels of the Swan Lake Fire was an almost strike by district employees, who had been working without a contract for more than a year. An agreement was reached, O’Brien remembers, “at the 11th hour,” at around 2 a.m. on the morning of the planned strike.
Then came the COVID pandemic, which roughly coincided with O’Brien’s kidney cancer diagnosis.
“I had to go away to the Mayo Clinic for a couple of months for some treatment and I’m very appreciative of Dave Jones, who was my assistant superintendent [and] kind of filled in for me while I was recovering,” O’Brien said. “But at that very same time, that’s when, in Wuhan, China, we started hearing news stories about this virus that could potentially become a pandemic.”
KPBSD’s outgoing Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Support Dave Jones filled in as acting superintendent until about April 2020, when O’Brien returned. It wasn’t long after that COVID put the world on lockdown, Alaska included. Gov. Mike Dunleavy shifted Alaska’s education system to remote learning in March 2020.
In looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, O’Brien thinks KPBSD was better prepared than other school districts in the state, partially because efforts to improve the district’s remote learning option for students in rural areas had been underway prior to the pandemic. They saw the most challenges in elementary school classrooms, where those efforts had not yet been fully implemented.
Still, the system wasn’t without its challenges. While some families thrived with remote learning, others did not.
“For those students in those families that did not choose [remote learning], that was not their choice, it was hard,” O’Brien said. “I mean, especially families that had limited internet connection at home and had three or four kids at home at the same time, that are trying to join a Zoom, it was impossible.”
O’Brien said that while the district worked to help students learn remotely, including giving families MiFi internet hotspots through AT&T, offering ChromeBooks and paper packets for students who didn’t have internet, it wasn’t always good enough. O’Brien said that he has been living in a cabin since September and experienced firsthand how big of an obstacle unreliable internet access could be during the pandemic.
Part of what made it so challenging to plan around the pandemic in its early stages, O’Brien said, was all of COVID-19’s unknowns. The district’s “Smart Start” plan, which was crafted in the summer of 2020, described how the school district would operate during different COVID risk levels.
As more information came out about transmission among students, the district revised that plan and allowed students to return to in-person learning in January. When the district could bring students back to school safely, O’Brien said, was the million dollar question.
O’Brien also noted that students attended in-person classes for the majority of the school year, but said the KPBSD community faced unique challenges during the second quarter of the 2020-2021 school year. Tensions between the district and some family members who opposed prolonged remote learning resulted in protests and hours of public testimony at the school board’s December meeting.
Trying to keep everyone happy, he said, was a balancing act, adding that he relied heavily on district and state medical advisors for guidance.
“It helped for me to recognize that people were just upset, they were frustrated and there was a lot of uncertainty,” O’Brien said. “I had one faction or group of people who, I think even to this day, believe that the pandemic is a hoax. And then on the other side of that equation, I had people who were very concerned, and were shocked that we were even thinking about opening schools at all during a global pandemic.”
Ultimately, O’Brien said his priority was always to keep students and staff safe. While the district was able to implement additional COVID mitigation measures at schools while students worked remotely, he said, the district may have been able to keep students in school during the second quarter if they had the same information about in-school transmission as they do now.”
“We knew we would have been dealing with cases because the community transmission was so high at that point in time, but we just would have dealt with it on a on a case-by-case basis and quarantine certain classrooms if we needed to, kind of like how we did moving forward when we revised the plan in January,” O’Brien said.
In reflecting on how the district handled the pandemic as a whole, O’Brien said he is proud of the resilience staff, students and the community showed and that he is hopeful the next academic year will be more of a return to normal.
“Nothing has been normal about the two years that I’ve been superintendent, but I always try to look for the positive and silver lining,” O’Brien said. “I believe that I was put in this position for a reason to help lead this district through all three of those very turbulent events.”
Budgeting and deferred maintenance
Most recently, O’Brien has helped facilitate budget negotiations between the board of education and Kenai Peninsula Borough administration. The district clashed with the borough over multiple budget work sessions about how much money the borough should contribute to the school district for the next fiscal year.
O’Brien and the board initially requested to be fully funded by the borough at $53 million, while the borough pushed back anticipating a loss of sales tax revenue due to the pandemic. He has maintained that federal COVID relief funds were not meant to supplant the district’s budget in the long term, and that lack of a long-term fiscal plan on the state level puts Alaska’s school districts at risk.
In all, KPBSD has received three rounds of federal funding, some of which must be used to help students who fell behind academically during the pandemic through the implementation of remedial measures like summer programs, extended learning days and after-school programs.
Ultimately, the assembly voted to set the borough’s funding floor at $45 million with assurances from Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce that his administration would work to get the borough’s contribution up to $48 million once they have a better understanding of the borough’s final revenues heading into the next fiscal year.
O’Brien said he is “optimistic” that the borough’s sales tax receipts will be stronger than anticipated and that Pierce will get the final contribution up to $48 million. But, he said, solutions are still needed at the state level.
“The biggest challenge for school districts in Alaska will be if the state finally comes up with a sustainable fiscal plan,” O’Brien said. “Secondary to that, if next year, the floor of funding for the school district from the borough is still only at $48 million, that’s not going to be enough to keep up with inflation and other areas that need to be addressed … because the federal monies are going to save us for next year, and potentially into the following school year, but after that, they’re gone.”
O’Brien recently signed onto a letter with Pierce asking the state to move funds awarded to the borough to construct a new school in the borough’s Kachemak-Selo community. That project is one of many deferred maintenance projects the school district has sought financial support for. The district hopes to go to bond with the list of projects, but that would require borough and voter support.
That issue is one of many O’Brien expects his successor will take up the reins on.
The KPBSD Board of Education selected Clayton Holland to replace O’Brien as superintendent earlier this year. Holland currently serves as KPBSD’s assistant superintendent of instruction, a position for which O’Brien hired him. When Holland takes over, he’ll move one office down from where he currently works.
That close proximity, O’Brien said, has helped make the transition period easier. In addition to holding weekly transition meetings, he said he’s able to keep Holland up to date on things in real time when they see each other in the office.
“Mr. Holland is going to be able to hit the ground running and immediately be ready to assume the superintendency,” O’Brien said. “We’ve worked really well together during this transition period.”
Among the issues O’Brien expects Holland will deal with during his first year as superintendent are the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, especially the expansion of vaccine eligibility to children under 12, deferred maintenance at school facilities — including Kachemak Selo — and larger social issues being addressed by school districts around the country, including Title IX policies, rights for transgender students and teaching about racial equality and racial justice.
“Those are some issues that all school districts are going to really have to start tackling the next couple of years,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien’s work in education won’t come to an end when he steps down as superintendent, however. Though he had initially planned to take some time off after leaving the district, the “absolute perfect job” opened at Arizona State University, near Phoenix. The move will put O’Brien and his wife closer to his three daughters, two of whom live in Arizona and one of whom lives in Colorado.
At ASU, O’Brien will officially become the Associate Director of Professional Experiences for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. In that position, he’ll work to connect students in the teaching programs with principal and superintendent internships and residencies at school districts near Phoenix.
“When I was offered the position and I accepted, I felt like I was a 22-year-old college student accepting my first teaching job all over again,” O’Brien said. “That’s how excited I am about this next chapter — I call it my second act of my career in my life.”
As for what he’ll miss most about Alaska, O’Brien spoke about what brought him to the peninsula in the first place: fly fishing. Specifically, fishing the Kenai River and around Cooper Landing.
“I’m going to a completely different landscape in Arizona, which is very beautiful, too,” O’Brien said. “But yeah I’m going to miss the fly fishing.”
In the meantime, O’Brien said he wishes the best for the students, staff and friends he’s leaving behind.
“We really are the best,” O’Brien said. “People move here just for the quality of life and because of the quality of our schools. That’s a testament not to me, but to the teachers and the support staff, and to the support that this community shows for education. It has been an absolute privilege and a pleasure to have been here on the Kenai for the last 16 years.”
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org