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Superintendent Bart O'Brien named 2009 educator of year

Guest of honor at State of Community dinner Friday
By: Lloryl Nicolaisen
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Bart O’Brien can tell you a thing or two about dream jobs — he’s been doing his for more than 30 years. O’Brien, 58, who retires from his position as Placer Union High School District superintendent at the end of June, has been selected as the 2009 Educator of the Year, a recognition he’s honored to receive. But the real gift, O’Brien said, has come in the form of a career in education that began when he, a 1969 Colfax High School graduate, joined his alma mater’s teaching staff in 1977. “When I came back, to be a teacher in the foothills was a goal,” O’Brien said. “To be a teacher at my high school, Colfax High School, was a dream. When I was hired I felt, ‘I’ve won the life lottery.’” O’Brien studied history as an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley, continuing as a graduate student at University of California, Davis. Working in education was always a goal. He started out at Colfax teaching summer school, and then took a full-time job, teaching a jumble of drivers’ education, health, English and U.S. history before settling in to teaching economics and American government. He also coached the school’s ski team and worked from time to time as assistant track and cross-country coach. “I love high-school-aged people,” he said. “It’s really an exciting time in a human’s life. They’re starting to see the world for what it is and they’re starting to find their place in the world, and as a teacher, you’re providing guidance.” O’Brien traded the classroom for the district office in 1991, taking a position in staff development. “It was exciting but I really missed the role of being the high school teacher and being on campus, and knowing the students so well,” O’Brien said. O’Brien moved up in 1993 to assistant superintendent of personnel. He was hired as superintendent in 2000. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to grow as a person and as a professional, and to use what I’ve learned to make our schools better places for our students who’ve attended and the teachers who have worked there,” he said. O’Brien said he appreciates having been a part of local education long enough to see his students mature and become members of the community. He also appreciates working for a district with monumental community support. “The district is intertwined in the community,” he said. “There’s so much support and love of schools in this community, so those of us who work in the schools feel we’re a valued part of the community. The communities really embrace their high schools, and it makes you feel special to work there.” O’Brien is passionate about the life-changing potential of education. “Through my life, I’ve seen that education is key to being able to live the life you want to live,” he said. “So as an educator, I’ve tried to provide every opportunity possible for them to further their education and to see the value of education in their life.” Sue Lunsford, Foresthill High School principal, described O’Brien as “a visionary leader.” “In thinking back through the 18 years I’ve worked with him, Bart’s emphasis has always been to nurture continued growth and improvement by providing avenues for people to get together and dialogue about their work,” she said. Lynn MacDonald, president of the Placer Union High School District board of trustees, said O’Brien is easy to get along with, and that he will be missed by many after leaving the district at the end of June. “We hate to lose him,” MacDonald said. “He’s just an outstanding educator and he’s a great leader. He respects everyone and acknowledges them.” Michele Schuetz, Auburn Union Elementary School District superintendent, shared a similar sentiment about O’Brien, who she got to know when both superintendents were still teachers. “Bart is well respected in our community as an educational leader,” Schuetz said. ”He is visible at community events and involved in local service clubs.  Bart has done an excellent job in promoting his schools. He has helped to build strong academic learning environments and strong collaborative cultures.” Dave Horsey, assistant superintendent of educational services, steps into O’Brien’s position as superintendent July 1. “He puts employees and students in the forefront of his decision making,” Horsey said of O’Brien. “He’s one of those people who is truly a good listener, so you can bring anything to him and he’ll take your perspective into consideration. He’s got a great sense of humor and a kind heart.” O’Brien will be presented with the 2009 Educator of the Year award Friday during the State of the Community Dinner at the Gold Country Fairgrounds, 1273 High St., Auburn. Tickets are available by calling (530) 885-5616.