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Michael O’Neill sees opportunity in District downsizing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Michael O’Neill thinks that the School District’s decision to do a detailed inventory of its physical plant – he calls it “rationalizing facilities” – is a great idea and long overdue project that can only improve education overall in the city.

O’Neill provided the big idea and some of the financing behind the Philadelphia School Partnership, the nascent effort to promote and replicate the highest-performing schools in Philadelphia, whether they are public, charter, private, or parochial.

O’Neill, once a real estate developer who now owns a mining company called Preferred Sands LLC , says that his organization is in the process of creating a neighborhood-by-neighborhood map of all school buildings and school assets, public and private. The map, he said, would show physical capacity and how well the schools are doing educationally.

O’Neill wants to use his mapping information to “guide charter school policy,” pinpointing neighborhoods where high-performing schools are needed but don’t exist, and then matching potential charter operators with buildings.

“As we start to expand charters, we want to encourage charters to go where they are needed, not just where they can find buildings … and encourage private dollars to follow that,” he said.

The Archdiocese, is also doing a facilities and academic study and, according to O’Neill, may release Terra Nova test scores so their educational quality can be also be evaluated.

“We are hopeful and in discussions with them about allowing us to use that data in our mapping system in order to show achievement citywide,” O’Neil said.

But the school comparisons “will include more than test scores,” O’Neill said. “We’ll have several things to measure [quality]. We hope the map will show the most underserved areas of one kind of education or another.”

The five-county Philadelphia Archdiocese, a cradle of American Catholic education, at its peak 45 years ago educated 265,000 students in its five counties. Today it is struggling with the same kinds of excess property issues as the School District, with 25,000 empty school seats. Like the public schools, Catholic schools in the city have lost many students to charters, running a “tuition-based system for a population that can’t afford tuition,” O’Neill said.

While some are concerned about how excess District property might shift into private hands, O’Neill said he expected that “some, but not a lot” of closed District schools would end up as charters. “The total number of students is still not as much as the total number of seats,” he said. “We have to shrink buildings no matter what.”

As the District identifies excess buildings, the School Reform Commission should hire an outside real estate firm to determine how the District can get the highest value for them while balancing public policy concerns, O’Neill said.

“There are firms that do this, national real estate companies. There should be a subcommittee of the SRC to handle this, with everybody else focused on educating kids. Parents are the ones who will lose if there is a giant policy debate over buildings,” he said.