2021 | Schools

UPDATED: Pat O’Neill, longtime Montgomery County school board member, dead at 71

Was longest-serving board member in district history

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This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. Sept. 14, 2021, to add additional comments and details.

Regarded for decades as the unofficial “historian” of Montgomery County Public Schools, longtime school board member Pat O’Neill died on Tuesday at age 71.

O’Neill was the longest tenured school board member in MCPS history, first elected in 1998.

The cause of death was not immediately known.

A nearly lifelong resident of Montgomery County, O’Neill and her husband, Rick, both graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda in 1968. The couple’s two daughters, Jenny and Melissa, are also graduates of MCPS.

A fixture at school board meetings and district events for more than 23 years, O’Neill on Tuesday afternoon was remembered as a “fierce advocate for students.” She had a photographic memory, her colleagues said, and could talk at length about any school district policy.

Montgomery County Council Member Craig Rice said in an interview Tuesday that O’Neill was a “stalwart” on education reform. He said O’Neill gave him valuable guidance when he served on the Kirwan Commission, a body tasked with working on a statewide education reform bill that the Maryland General Assembly passed in 2020.

Rice, the chair of the council’s Education and Culture Committee, said O’Neill thought about how the Board of Education and public should support students academically, as well as socially and emotionally.

“When it came to the social and emotional well-being of our children … she always thought in terms of making sure we didn’t just focus on the ABCs of education, but also that we’re shaping our children to be great people in our community,” Rice said.

Jennifer Martin, president of the county’s teachers union, said she feels “a real sense of loss for a champion for students and for excellence in public education.”

“Pat was a true lion of public education,” Martin said. “She was a historian … and devoted her life to making sure children got the right start in life.”

She emphasized that O’Neill’s work was “service” because school board members are only paid $25,000 per year.

“She did this from a sense of profound passion for doing right by children,” Martin said. “She lived her values completely and we are going to miss her so very much.”

O’Neill won the Maryland Association of Boards of Education Charles Willis Award for outstanding school board service and was named one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the D.C. area by Washingtonian magazine in 2015.

“Her job on the board was her life, and the Board of Education was defined by Pat’s service and she took her service so incredibly seriously,” former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said. “Whenever you brought up any kind of policy change or regulation change, she would know that history and who made that decision and why and when.”

Former school board member and current County Council Member Nancy Navarro said she was “devastated” by O’Neill’s death. She, too, regarded O’Neill’s dedication to students and MCPS staff members, and her unflappable knowledge of district procedures.

“I recall basically in every single board meeting, she was able to bring historical perspective in order to inform the decisions that we were making,” Navarro said. “And it was always so important, because even with everything being documented, she was really just the guru to make sure we always knew the context with so many of the decisions we were making.”

O’Neill, a Bethesda resident, was up for re-election in 2022. She had not said publicly if she planned to run.

She had served five one-year terms as the board’s president, and six terms as vice president. She was chair of the board’s Policy Management Committee, which was scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon. The meeting was canceled.

Before joining the school board, O’Neill spent 12 years as a PTA volunteer and a leader in the Walt Whitman cluster of PTAs.

According to the school board’s handbook, in the event of the death of a member, the remaining members will “select a qualified individual to fill the vacancy.” The person must reside in the same district and be a registered voter in Montgomery County. The person will serve the remainder of O’Neill’s term.

Traditionally, the handbook says, the process begins with the school board soliciting applications from people interested in filling the vacancy. Candidates are then interviewed by the school board during a closed session meeting. The candidate who receives the majority vote of the remaining members is appointed to fill the vacant seat, the handbook says.

Funeral arrangements for O’Neill had not been made as of Tuesday afternoon.

Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com