By Stephanie Dolan
In March Margaret “Maggie” Hoernemann set precedence for the entire country closing school when Avon Community Schools had one of the country’s first known cases of COVID-19 among its students.
For her actions and long tenure in the school district the Hendricks County ICON has named the former superintendent of Avon Community School Corporation as the 2020 ICON of the Year.
Hoernemann served the district for 19 years and 10 months.
Just when Hoernemann was beginning to shift her focus to her already announced retirement last spring, COVID-19 hit.
“The timing was interesting for us,” she said, referring to March.
Hoernemann received a call on Sunday, March 8 from Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction who relayed information that Avon possibly had a student who tested positive.
“We spent pretty much Sunday from 3 p.m.-10:30 p.m. planning as if that were the case,” Hoernemann said.
School leaders decided to call parents and close Hickory Elementary School for two weeks plus spring break, shifting to eLearning. Then the entire district closed in-person learning, making Avon the first in the state to shutter doors, and one of the first in the nation.
“It was the morning of March 9 that we heard there was a possible second student,” she said. “The language they used was ‘presumptively positive.’ At that point, we talked with our health care professionals and our state health commissioner. Our board president was here with me and we all just looked at each other and we all just said, ‘Why wouldn’t we close?’ It was a little scary to be the first one to do it. The next day I got a couple of people telling me I was making a knee jerk reaction.”
As the week wore on, it became clear to Hoernemann that the choice had been a prudent one.
“I’ve thought a lot about that Sunday afternoon sitting around with the health department, Hendricks Regional Health and other key administrators. I’ve thought a lot about what that ultimate decision felt like, and I have to say that it seemed like the wisest course,” she said. “I have frequently said we will never regret being too careful. I think it felt a little scary, but at that point we had no idea it would go on for this long. We thought it would go on for two weeks.”
Hoernemann never felt alone in the decision to shut down.
“I thought there were a lot of smart people who were giving good input,” she said. “Of course, as the week wore on it became very clear that we did the right thing, and now when I look back at how much more we know about how COVID is transmitted. I’m so thankful we closed for that period of time.”
Hoernemann is thankful for the time she had serving the families in Avon schools.
“I think having the opportunity to build some trust among the people of our community and our school system that had eroded was one of the best things about my job,” she said. “We had lost the referendum in 2011. Staff was hurting, and parents were hurting, and kids were in very big classes for several years. It was a hard time. Finances were a real challenge because of the way schools were funded. We were going through a recession, and we received fewer dollars per child until 2016.”
That difficult time paved the way seven years later for the referendum to pass in 2018.
“It was really great to ultimately win the confidence of the community with the chamber supporting the referendum,” she said.
Now, Hoernemann is enjoying retirement, but it’s not looking exactly like she thought it would.
“I’m ready to retire,” she said back in March. “Our school district is in a great place. That is in large part due to the successful May 2018 referendum. This is a very demanding job, and I think slowing down a little bit is probably a good thing. People say you know when it’s time. This past fall I knew.”
Starting out in 2000 as Avon’s first director of human resources and working her way up through administration
“The superintendent at the time wanted someone to focus exclusively on recruiting and retaining the best employees,” she said.
The next superintendent asked Hoernemann to oversee the district’s curriculum while continuing in HR.
“So, for several years, I served as assistant superintendent and was very involved in teaching and learning and also continued to work on human resources,” she said. “As we grew larger, it became apparent that we needed someone else to focus on HR.”
With the support of people in the district, she became associate superintendent, giving her responsibility in the absence of the superintendent.
“Back in 2012, I applied for the job I said I would never, ever have and never wanted, and have been very happy as superintendent for eight years,” she said.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic put a damper on her travel plans, but retirement has not slowed Hoernemann down.
“We certainly thought we were going to be traveling, and that’s not something we’re comfortable doing right now,” she said. “I spend my time doing a lot of service, Rotary and Mary Lee Maier Food Pantry. It’s such a luxury to have time to help others. When I was superintendent I tried to be active in a variety of organizations, but I was so busy.”
“She was vital in getting the pantry up and going,” said Kristi Kerr, pantry president.
Hoernemann used her connections to teachers who work with students with food insecurity as well as Mike Cunningham from Cunningham Restaurant Group to get the pantry open in 2016.
“She was instrumental in getting the pantry started, and she’s still on the board,” Kerr said, noting that Hoernemann is willing to help at a moment’s notice.
“Even when she was superintendent,” she said. “She was very valuable. Now that she’s retired, she continues to serve on our board. She’s always willing to jump in if there are things that need to be picked up or shelving items and working with groups who are bringing donations into the pantry. She’s very behind the scenes. Most people don’t know she does as much as she does for us.”
Avon Rotary secretary Pam Lyons, now retired, worked as an Avon High School teacher during Hoernemann’s tenure as superintendent.
“I’ve known her since she came to work as a director in the front office. I also worked with her through Rotary as a superintendent, and now we’re in Rotary together,” said Lyons, adding that Hoernemann said that one of her post-retirement goals was to become more involved with Rotary.
“When you’re retired your first instinct is just to kind of relax for a while, but she has kept her word,” Lyons said. “She has stepped up from the time she retired to find ways to connect Rotary with people in the community and people of need through the Mary Lee Maier Food Bank. She works there all the time and then keeps us connected so that we can step in and help with those needs. Not only does she have the biggest heart, but she has so many connections in the community. She’s willing to do the work, whatever it is.”
In addition to continuing to serve others, Hoernemann has always been a bookworm and has taken up playing a new sport that’s growing in popularity.
“Even when I was a superintendent I was in a number of book clubs, and now I’m in even more,” she said. “I have also taken up pickle ball — or old people’s tennis. I’m taking online yoga classes, something I probably should have been doing when I was a superintendent for stress relief. It’s the luxury of time.”
Since July Hoernemann has also worked part time as part of a new program mentoring young administrators and superintendents through a program at the Central Indiana Education Service Center on the northwest side of Indianapolis, which includes Avon.
“They asked me to help develop it,” she said. “I have 11 clients in nine different districts. They range from superintendents to principals. My job is to be a good listener and mentor and confidante, and my conclusion after several months of doing this is I should have had a mentor. Everyone needs one.”
Hoernemann admits the new gig has been more work than she’d anticipated.
“It’s very intellectually stimulating. It’s just reinforced what a challenging time this is for educational leaders,” she said. “Being able to provide a little bit of support to those who may be feeling a little lonely sometimes is lots of fun and very rewarding.”
While she’s busy, Hoernemann retirement gives her the luxury of time.
“People always say you get busy in retirement, and that’s true, but it’s not the intensity of before,” she said. “My life is very simple right now. My heart goes out to everybody who is working right now, trying to negotiate this time and take care of their families. I’m living a very charmed life right now.”
What are your plans for Christmas? Seeing as we had plans for Thanksgiving that we scaled back and ended up home by ourselves, I think the best we’ll be able to do is get my mother-in-law, who is 93 and in Minnesota, to get her here to our house and possibly a sister from Chicago to our house. That’s probably going to be the extent of it. Our extended family will celebrate on Zoom. We’ll have a meal together and do gifts together and do a caroling party together.
Do you have a new year’s resolution? I really should. I think probably continuing to be committed to daily exercise, which has been very manageable. I’m committed to walking and yoga and those kinds of things and taking care of my own health. Never has it been more clear that health is a gift.
What is your favorite Christmas movie? “It’s a Wonderful Life”
What is your favorite Christmas carol? At mass it’s “Silent Night.” My favorite carol for singing is “Deck the Halls.”
What are you most thankful for? The health of my family and myself. One of my sisters did have COVID, and she was hospitalized. We are fortunate that she is recovering, and we all have access to have healthcare.