2021 | Schools

Montgomery school board remembers Pat O’Neill at first meeting since her death

Colleagues called her calm, gracious

share this

A memorial for school board member Pat O'Neill at her seat. O'Neill died Sept. 14 at age 71.

Photos by Caitlynn Peetz

For the first time in more than 23 years on Tuesday, the Montgomery County Board of Education convened for a meeting without Pat O’Neill as a member.

O’Neill died on Sept. 14 at her Bethesda home while watching the live stream of a County Council meeting with school district officials, according to her husband, Rick. She was 71.

On Tuesday, the remaining seven school board members remembered O’Neill as a dedicated colleague, a failsafe in difficult times, the school district’s unofficial historian and a friend.

“Pat’s goal was to always make decisions that would benefit all students,” school board President Brenda Wolff said. “She was never afraid to stand for what she thought was right for students, even if it was unpopular.”

Pat O’Neill’s husband, Rick, speaks to the school board on Tuesday.

School board members requested that O’Neill’s name be added to the district’s list of possible names for future school facilities. When naming new buildings or renaming existing buildings, MCPS policy gives preference to deceased women and minorities.

Over the past 23 years, O’Neill was part of more than 500 meetings, spending thousands of hours at the dais. She was the board’s president five times and vice president six times.

Board members on Tuesday acknowledged the amount of time O’Neill gave to the school district, but also thanked her family in attendance — her husband, daughters and sister — for “lending her to us.”

“We know the sacrifice she’s made over the years to serve the students and families of Montgomery County Public Schools and, in some ways, I am sure that did sacrifice some of your time,” Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said. “So, I thank you for sharing her with us because that has benefited the system, benefited our children and benefited families in so many ways that we will see for years to come.”

Pat O’Neill’s reserved parking space at the school board office is decorated in her memory.

Rick O’Neill told the board that Pat “dearly loved all the board members, all the staff.”

“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We didn’t mind lending her at all.”

O’Neill was “instrumental in transformational policy decisions,” Wolff said.

“Her legacy lives on,” board member Karla Silvestre added. “It lives on in everyone she mentored throughout the years and it lives on in the children of this school system.”

She was generous with her knowledge and time, board member Rebecca Smondrowski said, and she “loved to debate the finer points of policy and procedure.”

Other board members described O’Neill as calm, judicious, gracious, kind and happy. Several said they talked to O’Neill nearly every day.

And, while they’ll miss O’Neill, they said they’ll continue “doing the work” of the school system.

“Good luck,” Rick O’Neill said. “Carry on.”