A long-vacant former bank building at 615 N. Classen will begin its transformation into a new Oklahoma City Public Schools administration building starting this week.
The Oklahoma City Council approved spending $10 million in TIF funds for the project Tuesday in their regular bi-weekly meeting.
A new administration building for Oklahoma City Public Schools will mean centralizing district staff in the same building in a central location in the district.
This comes after district staff had been dispersed to four different buildings over the last several years due to problems with the structure of the current administration building at 900 N. Klein.
It also means the current city-block-sized administration property could go on the market in two years leaving questions about the possible impact on the surrounding city.
But the measure comes with controversy over what will happen to some other facilities where some district staff are now housed.
And one council member said that he is “tired of the Oklahoma City Public Schools not being up front and honest with the people who I represent.”
Plans presented to the council by Scott Randall, chief operations officer for the district, and Superintendent Aurora Lora revealed a timeline showing completion of the project by February 9, 2019.
Between now and then the vacant bank building will be transformed into a facility that can house all the district staff and will provide a new auditorium for school board and other meetings.
Randall told the council they plan to pull all district-wide staff back into the central facility once it is built.
Total costs for the refit are estimated at a little over $11 million.
The tax increment financing, or TIF, district will transfer a portion of property tax funds for a limited period to the project.
The concept is that the new, improved property will increase the surrounding tax valuations which will increase tax revenue, thus allowing eventual recovery of tax money diverted to the project.
Other TIF districts have been used to boost many of the large developments in downtown Oklahoma City over the past decade.
Responding to questions from Ward 8 Councilman Mark Stonecipher, Randall said that currently there are only “about 150” staff at 900 N. Klein. He did not give numbers for dispersed staff that have gone out to four other locations.
But for those who live in and hold property in the surrounding neighborhood, the question of what happens next to the property should the district declare it surplus in two years remains open.
In the past, the district has sold school building property to developers only to have them go back on what they had agreed to do.
One such example was the former Dunbar school on the lower east side of Oklahoma City.
Randall told Free Press after the meeting district staff believe it could be declared surplus, but that decision would be up the district’s Board of Education.
He also said the district has learned from former sales and have no intention of creating the same mistakes of the past.
“We are very much concerned about what happens in the future and we will still feel responsible for that facility,” Randall said.
Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis had the most pointed questions for Superintendent Aurora Lora and Randall.
His questions focused on the use of the former Northeast High School building, now Northeast Academy for Health Sciences and Engineering Enterprise, 3100 North Kelley in Oklahoma City.
The building has been one of the four sites to where about 30 district staff were moved last school year.
“For years, there were plans to have the entire admin at Northeast. So, have you all abandoned that plan and will all admin staff that’s at Northeast move to 615?” Pettis asked.
Randall answered “yes.”
Pettis pressed Randall and Lora further. “What happens…to NE once the school district decides to close that school?”
Lora answered, “The district has not made the decision to close NE HS. We are waiting for recommendations from the Northeast taskforce.”
She went on to explain that the whole district would have to be assessed on attendance and possible “consolidations” of schools for cost savings.
“But we will move our staff out of that building,” Lora said.
Pettis countered that the Northeast task force would “not make a recommendation to what schools will be open and what schools will be closed.”
“Your chief of staff said last week that that decision will be made by you and not the task force,” Pettis said. “That’s what was told to the task force last week.”
Lora clarified further than neither she or the board had decided to close Northeast. She also emphasized that they want to honor neighbors’ wishes for the building to stay a school.
After the meeting, Free Press asked Lora and Randall about the encounter with Pettis. They both emphasized that the decision about Northeast or any other school had not been made.
“We are waiting to see how this budget situation plays out on the state level before we make any decisions about consolidations,” Lora said.
After adjournment, Pettis was blunt with Free Press about what people in his ward are thinking about Northeast Academy and some other schools.
When asked if he thought pulling all the district staff out of Northeast was the beginning of the end for the school, he said, “Absolutely yes.”
“I’m tired of the Oklahoma City Public School District not being upfront and honest with the people who I represent,” Pettis said. “I believe that they created the [Northeast] task force to take the heat for their poor decisions.”
Ward 7 covers most of the east side of Oklahoma City where large parts have been historically majority African-American.
He said the administration has been saying they want to have at least 350 students per school building to make operations cost effective. But neither Northeast or Moon Middle School have that level of attendance and neither do several others on the east side.
“And if you look at the track record of what they have been doing and the underhanded things that they have been doing, it shows that they are in fact moving in that direction,” said Pettis.