COLUMBIA CITY — Being a superintendent in a district of 3,500 students is no easy task.
Doing that in the middle of a pandemic — while trying to open a new, $85 million high school — is remarkable.
Dr. Patricia O’Connor has bee the superintendent at Whitley County Consolidated Schools for 11 years. In that time, she’s accomplished much — surviving the financial crisis of 2010, opening Eagle Tech Academy, garnering community support for a new high school facility, and finishing up the years-long construction project during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It hasn’t been boring, I’ll tell you that,” O’Connor said.
Whitley County’s O’Connor was named to the 2020 Influential Women of Northeast Indiana list by KPC Media Group, and participated in a live chat last week among 15 other honorees.
Superintendents before O’Connor were unable to achieve majority support for a new high school, a desire spanning 30 years of attempts at a new building. Most recently, a 2009 petition/remonstrance was shot down — right before O’Connor came to WCCS.
O’Connor began at WCCS as an assistant superintendent, coming from a similar position at a larger school district in South Bend.
A short time into her new job, O’Connor got some surprising news.
“I was here a couple of weeks and the superintendent announced she was leaving,” O’Connor said.
Laura Huffman stepped down, and O’Connor offered to fill in as interim. About a month later, she took the position for good. Not long after, the economic crisis struck, and schools across the state took major cuts.
“I remember Tony Zickgraf and Jenny Grable coming in and telling me we would be millions out,” O’Connor said. “We had to lay off teachers and other staff members. Not a thing was not touched or looked at. But we got through that.”
O’Connor then moved on to one of her first big projects — opening Eagle Tech Academy, a New Tech school that is part of Columbia City High School.
The former Marshall Middle School was remodeled, and business partners from around the community helped to support the new venture, which had 100 students in its first year and eventually grew to 400.
“It’s been fun to see it grow,” O’Connor said.
The program was one of the first in the state, and one of about five in Indiana now.
Not long after, O’Connor directed her focus on the 1958 Columbia City High School building, which was considered an eyesore by many in the community.
“I’d taken lots of groups through our facilities. We are so proud of our beautiful middle school, our new and renovated elementary schools — and then take them to the high school and it was shameful. People wonder what’s going on here?”
O’Connor heard from many in the community about the impact of the old building, such as realtors who were having trouble selling homes.
“We are a tremendous community full of great people. That building wasn’t reflective of who we are. We had to raise the bar,” she said.
However, also being a conservative community, many were not interested in tacking on more debt until old debts were paid off, which is why the 2009 initiative failed to pass.
“Our community wants to pay debts before taking on new debt. I have a respect for that and try to do that in my own household,” O’Connor said.
So she staked out a plan, paying off some debts, meeting with community members and organizations, and seeking a boost from the Whitley County Redevelopment Commission to the tune of $7.5 million in tax increment financing dollars.
“We had debt falling off and a tax rate that would work finally. We had the support of so many entities that we didn’t have before,” O’Connor said.
With her ducks in a row, O’Connor used the support of the board to launch the campaign for a November 2015 referendum.
“The board has just been the wind beneath my wings. They’ve been very supportive and encouraging us to move forward,” she said. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to work with such a board.”
After the referendum passed, O’Connor, the board, staff members and members of the community took part in planning and designing the new school building, which spans 300,000 square feet, plus outbuildings and top-of-the-line sports facilities.
Construction began July 2017 and the school opened this August in the middle of the pandemic, putting a damper on some of O’Connor’s plans.
She wanted to host a goodbye party at the 1958 building and a dedication ceremony at the new facility, both of which had to be canceled.
“I feel kind of incomplete,” she said. “It put a big damper on things, but we are not alone.”
The approval and eventual completion of the new school may not have happened without the influence of O’Connor, the right board members, and the support of particular community members.
“It’s almost like divine intervention to come together at this moment in time to get this done for the community,” O’Connor said. “The opportunity to be a part of this is beyond belief. I appreciate the opportunity to participate.”
Though proud of what’s been accomplished — at least for now — she’s not looking to add another new school to her resume.
“It is a tremendous amount of work. One in a lifetime is enough,” she said.
Fresh out of high school, O’Connor never could have predicted where her career would end up. She originally began college at Purdue University and later transferred to the University of Georgia, where she was a science major.
“I talked to the education department and I was so impressed,” she said. “So I did, and it took every nickel I had and 2.5 years.”
After graduation, O’Connor returned to Indiana where she was a teacher for 10 years. Her career then advanced to principal for 12 years, assistant superintendent for 10 years and now superintendent at WCCS.
“I’ve had the gift of some incredible mentors, or none of this would have occurred to me,” O’Connor said.
In her first job at a private school in Elkhart, she was only three weeks in when she became the “unofficial” assistant principal, helping out the principal when she was out of the building.
“I was just trying to figure out how to teach,” O’Connor said. “But I was able to move on that.”
She earned her master’s degree and administrator’s license, and eventually took an assistant principal job in South Bend.
“I had a friend from South Bend give me an app, just wanting me to get my name in — another mentor,” she said. “Lo and behold, I got the job.”
Similar to her experience at WCCS, shortly after her arrival in South Bend, her position changed.
“The principal I worked for came in and said he wanted to trade places with me,” she said.
She took the reins during a stressful time for the school — it was under extensive renovations.
“The building was completely torn apart — everything from all the classrooms was piled in the gym,” she said.
But O’Connor persevered, as she does, and ended up being the principal at Edison Middle School, where she attended as a child.
“It was a wonderful experience. I thought I’d never leave because I loved it. I loved everything about it,” O’Connor said.
That all changed when she got a call from the superintendent, who asked her to leave the school to work on a curriculum project.
“When I was finished, I was supposed to go back to the school,” she said. “Then she asked me to stay as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.”
When that superintendent stepped down, O’Connor sought out the job in Columbia City — a community she knew little about initially but grew to love.
“I was so happy I got the job. It was a highly valued job,” she said.
She’s appreciated working with a school board and staff that is so supportive, and she may not have been able to accomplish all she has without that support.
“I’ve always felt very welcomed and people have been very kind, fair, honest and supportive,” O’Connor said.
Early in O’Connor’s career, it wasn’t as common for women to hold more prominent positions.
“When I was a teacher, I applied for a chair position in the science department, and the principal didn’t know why I wanted a position like this. When I applied for assistant superintendent in South Bend, they couldn’t imagine why I wanted to be in administration,” O’Connor said. “It was long enough ago that there were a lot of changes that needed to occur to have women in administrative positions. I guess I was part of that. There weren’t many female admins. If you were, you were a pioneer at the time.”
O’Connor said there has been much progress made in the education industry, which originally saw females as teachers, and “men were in charge.”
“I hardly ever think about it now. It seems like a non-issue,” O’Connor said. “We’re making a lot of progress as far as opportunities go, but there’s more work to be done. Look at the Senate, the House in every state and national position. Look at who the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are.”
Though the new school is up and running, O’Connor still has her hands full with the ongoing pandemic, which has changed much with her work style.
O’Connor’s personality lends to well-thought-out plans and preparation. During the pandemic, many plans were thrown out the window on a daily basis as the situation changed.
“I like to take time in making a plan, and once we do I don’t like changes,” O’Connor said. “I learned some flexibility.”
She typically compartmentalized her work depending on her physical location.
“Most of the time, when I’m home, I’m home. I’m doing the laundry, making dinner, doing all of that,” she said. “When I’m at the office, I don’t think about home. I’m all-in wherever I am, but not with this pandemic.
“It’s 24/7 but you have to love it. I do. I love it. Do I love the stress? No. Do I worry about things? Yes.”
Especially during the pandemic, where she could face a crisis at any moment.
“Doing all of this in a pandemic is very stressful,” she said. “I’m a phone call away every day from a crisis.”
With many irons in the fire at work, O’Connor doesn’t have a lot of free time for hobbies but does enjoy entertaining friends, reading books, reading newspapers, cooking and spending time with her husband, who also works long days.
O’Connor has some ideas of how she would like to spend her time after retirement — a “simple life.”
“When I retire the only thing I want to do is walk dogs and try to see my grandchildren as much as I can … hang out with friends … a very simple life,” O’Connor said.