After five years with the Payson Unified School District, Superintendent Casey
O’Brien announced Thursday he would retire at the end of the school year.
O’Brien, 56, said he plans to travel more with his wife Priscilla and spend time with their parents in southern Arizona, where he has a home.
O’Brien has served with the district through one of the worst budgetary periods for school districts in years. While finances have languished, O’Brien helped launch new programs, build and upgrade facilities and keep the district largely a float. But decisions weren’t always easy, he admits. The district has gone through two years of substantial cutbacks. The district closed Frontier Elementary School, increased class sizes and reduced the number of teachers and staff members to save money.
“These have been the toughest times financially in school history,” said Barbara Underwood, PUSD board president. “With Casey’s guidance, I believe we have made it through with the least amount of damage.”
O’Brien said his decision to leave has nothing to do with dissatisfaction with the district, governing board or school staff, but was a decision reached with his wife.
O’Brien has no plans to seek employment elsewhere, but may, in a few years, volunteer or take up work in southern Arizona.
With his days of running a school district ending, O’Brien said he is excited for the next chapter of life, which he hopes includes more traveling and time with family.
“We (Priscilla and I) are both healthy and active,” he said.
“We can always go back to work, but we can’t always go hike across northern Spain.”
Backpacking is just one of the things O’Brien hopes to cross off his bucket list.
“There are a lot of things we want to do,” he said. “Priscilla is already fixing up a little trailer.”
Spending time with both sets of their parents is another draw of retirement.
The O’Briens already have a home in Sonoita that they designed and their family lives nearby in Bisbee and surrounding communities.
Underwood, who retired in her 40s, said she understood O’Brien’s decision to leave, but was still sad to see him go.
“Life is short and I believe that if you can retire, do so, and enjoy your family and friends,” she said.
The board will meet Tuesday, Jan. 17, in a special meeting to discuss hiring a new superintendent.
O’Brien told the board Monday he would be retiring, a move that surprised many.
“From the sentiments I have heard from the board, I know he will be deeply missed,” Underwood said.
In the last few years, O’Brien applied for superintendent positions elsewhere in the state, lending the impression he planned to work a few more years.
O’Brien said the challenge of a bigger district initially appealed to him, but after those positions fell through, he realized maybe it wasn’t what he needed after all.
“I feel very fortunate being here (in Payson) today,” he said.
“I grew up a in a small town and worked largely in rural areas most of my career. Being in a bigger district has challenges, but I don’t think that is who I am.”
O’Brien has pursued new challenges throughout his life – first, as a pilot with the U.S. Navy. O’Brien served for eight years, working his way up to an officer.
It was in the armed forces that he met his wife some 25 years ago in Puerto Rico.
She was also a naval officer who eventually retired as a commander in the reserves.
When it came time to decide if O’Brien would stay in the Navy or become a commercial pilot, he decided to teach instead.
After 22 years in education, O’Brien has held nearly every position from a teacher to an assistant principal in Flagstaff, a principal in Cochise County and assistant superintendent in Nogales.
Leaving Payson is bittersweet, he said.
“The most difficult part for me is leaving all the wonderful people I work with,” he said. “The school boards have all been supportive and the staff at the district office is great.”
In his five years with the district, O’Brien said he is proud of how well teachers and staff have handled the budget restrictions.
“We continue to move forward,” he said. “We are moving against the tide of less money and greater poverty.”
O’Brien is also proud of the projects he helped spearhead. From installing solar panels throughout the district, helping with the planning and building of Julia Randall Elementary School and renovations at the middle school to a new engineering program and virtual school.
Through June, his focus is on sustainability. Helping the district plan for the future when it likely won’t see funding restored is a challenge.
The next superintendent will have to figure out how to keep the district afloat in the current economy
Underwood hopes the board can find a superintendent as easy to work with as O’Brien. “We have benefited from five years of Casey’s devotion, experience, vision and calm leadership,” she said. “I am sad that we will have to replace him in the upcoming months.”