Photo courtesy of MCPS
Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill, the longest-tenured school board member in Montgomery County’s history, died at the age of 71 on September 14.
O’Neill had served on the Board since 1998. Throughout her 23 years of work, she made a name for herself through her work ethic and wealth of knowledge for all students — but also by demonstrating a standout dedication to making her constituents feel connected to the school board, according to those who worked with her.
Board of Education At-Large member Lynne Harris had only served on the Board with O’Neill for 10 months before O’Neill passed away. Still, Harris said she will remember her as a leader who had an unparalleled commitment to the school system, and as someone who always listened to local families’ perspectives.
“Pat knew a lot and she’d been through a lot of work on the Board, but she’d always been very interested in hearing what people were experiencing,” Harris said. “She didn’t think that what happened in the past was the perfect model for now.”
O’Neill was one of the “most knowledgeable” Board members on topics like policy items and regulations, as well as MCPS history, said Student Member of the Board of Education Hana O’Looney. More than that, though, O’Neill used her deep experience to improve the lives of all of those she served.
“Pat was such a wonderful and kind person, and she dedicated herself to education,” O’Looney said. “She was known for being more than happy to have long calls with constituents, explaining MCPS policies.”
O’Neill chaired the Board of Education’s Policy Management Committee, meaning that she was responsible for setting the agenda for most of the Board of Education’s legislative work. In this role, she continually prioritized equity, even leading the charge for the principle to become one of MCPS’ “core values,” said Eric Guerci, who served as SMOB from 2015 to 2017.
During O’Neill’s time on the Board, MCPS transformed from a majority white school system into one in which a plurality of students in the district are Hispanic. This demographic change, as well as the resource-allocation shifts that came along with it, required creative ways of leveling the playing field for students’ education. This was a difficult task, but one O’Neill gladly helped take on, Guerci said.
“MCPS was a trailblazer in differentiating resources for students who needed them most, focusing on some of the most impoverished students,” Guerci said. “Pat was a real leader in all of that work which burnished the ground for a lot of equity work.”
This past May, O’Neill introduced a policy that would excuse absences for mental health days. Later that month, the Board voted that this change should take effect.
Junior Arvin Kim, who has testified to the Board about the boundary study, highlighted O’Neill’s advocacy for students’ mental wellbeing.
“Mrs. O’Neill left a great impact on our community,” Kim said. “Her work for our schools will continue to benefit students for generations.”
However, O’Neill didn’t just contribute to the community from her seat at the Board of Education — she was a former Whitman PTSA president, and dedicated many years of her life to serving the Whitman cluster.
“She was always available to hear the concerns and ideas of our community,” Principal Robert Dodd wrote in the email to the community. “Many of the improvements, programs, and initiatives that benefit our students today are directly attributable to her advocacy.”
When Arielle Grill, this year’s PTSA Homecoming Chair, advocated for an addition to Bradley Hills Elementary School in the early 2010s, O’Neill guided her in drafting the testimony that would be most persuasive for the Board. This was just one example of how O’Neill always looked out for the Whitman community and paid close attention to the needs of her constituents, Grill said.
“She would return my calls and emails almost right away,” Grill said. “She really made me feel like her job was to respond to the community members and stakeholders.”
O’Neill sought out all students’ opinions on all the Board’s policy items, often reaching out to student activist groups for their insights, Guerci said.
“She spent a lot of time on the ground level hearing the concerns of the students,” Guerci said. “She used to always say that she had maternal care for all 165,000 students in our district.”
Maryland state flags at all MCPS sites flew at half-staff on September 15 in honor of O’Neill’s commitment to students.
“Mrs. O’Neill is going to be missed by so many,” Dodd wrote in his letter. “Her legacy of service to MCPS and the Whitman cluster will endure.”