2021 | Opinion

Opinion: O’Neill mixed kindness, keen strategy to support student voices

School board member left an admirable legacy

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On Sept. 14, Pat O’Neill — the county’s longest serving school board member, a legendary champion for students, and our close colleague and friend — passed away. It’s difficult to imagine Montgomery County Public Schools without her.

Before we knew which door was the main entrance to the MCPS central office, we knew Pat. For 23 years, every young advocate who went through Montgomery County did.

Pat never seemed to miss a chance to sit down with students and listen to what they had to say. Never patronizing or inattentive, Pat always showed up, absorbed student feedback, and carried their hopes and advocacy into her work.

Pat simply believed in the student voice. Just as she did for every issue she stood for on the board, she pushed for it holding kindness in one hand and the keenest political strategy we have ever seen in the other.

When we were elected to the school board and found ourselves on the other side of the dais alongside Pat, we saw the profundity of that kindness.

Pat was a mentor to us. Whenever we needed to understand how something worked, used to work, or had ever been attempted, we turned to Pat.

Over long conversations in the board office in between meetings, Pat chronicled the long history of the issues we voted on, sharing stories of the controversies and triumphs of previous boards. She would lend her wisdom to us not only on the workings of the school system, but about college, jobs, and life.

For the entire time we knew Pat and, indeed, the 23 years she served, Pat stuck up for the student member of the board. She did so often in public, in front of legislative committees weighing frequently contentious policies like expanded voting rights.

But just as often, Pat went to bat for us behind the scenes. In the quiet moments in the board’s backroom, Pat defended the student member’s right to be in spaces in which their presence was never guaranteed.

We didn’t always agree with Pat. But the debates we shared only deepened our respect and admiration for her.

Pat was always willing to listen and genuinely open to changing her mind. At a few critical and uncertain moments during each of our terms, Pat heard us out, changed her position, and flipped her vote.

It is a rare quality to simultaneously be so experienced, so strategically brilliant, and so open-minded. But for the entire time she served, Pat never stopped listening.

It’s hard to express just how much we’re going to miss Pat. We’ll miss hearing her voice in videos of board meetings, seeing her snappy quotes in The Washington Post and Bethesda Beat, and running into her at county events.

We’ll miss being able to call her up to ask for advice. We’ll miss getting lunch with her and hearing about her grandkids.

But we know Pat will long live on in the hundreds of thousands of young people uplifted by her work.

She will be carried in the voices of students who are bilingual thanks to the dual immersion programs she advocated for. She will be a presence in the lives of students who learn in the new Seneca Valley High School she pushed to be built. She will forever be a part of what students learn in classrooms with the small class sizes she constantly fought for.

Pat may be gone, but her legacy endures as a permanent part of our school district’s foundation.

The best we can do now is carry forward her memory and try our best to live up to the highest principles of public service that she demonstrated.

MCPS would do well to share her example with the coming generations of students who will reap the benefits of her life’s work. Patricia O’Neill Elementary School has a nice ring to it.

Rising Voices is an occasional column by Nate Tinbite, a John F. Kennedy High School graduate; Ananya Tadikonda, a Richard Montgomery High School graduate; and Matt Post, a Sherwood High School graduate. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

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