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Oklahoma City Public Schools, OCU Law School rivals in bidding to buy former Central High School

Oklahoma City Public Schools is competing against the Oklahoma City University Law School in an effort to buy the former Central High School.
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: July 9, 2012

Bids are in, and Karl Springer is hoping a years-long dream to reclaim the old Central High School for the administration of Oklahoma City Public Schools becomes a reality.

But as Springer, the city school district's superintendent, is making the landmark the only option for its new administration building, he is facing competition from Oklahoma City University, which argues its law school is a better fit and will do far more to promote the development of downtown.

“I would like for our law school to be very identified with the power and growth of Oklahoma City,” said Valerie Couch, dean of the OCU Law School. “We need to be in the heart of Oklahoma City. It would be the first time we put a big university presence downtown.”

OCU's interest caught Springer by surprise when he was informed of it by The Oklahoman. It sets up a potential bidding war for a building deemed one of the city's top architectural landmarks.

The 102-year-old building, designed by legendary architect Andrew Solomon Layton, was given up by the school system 30 years ago when it was sold to Southwestern Bell Telephone. The company won accolades for its use of tax credits for a renovation that kept the historic building intact while adapting into office space.

As superintendent, Springer sees no other alternative for a new headquarters and notes the district's current building at NW 8 and Klein is falling apart. The former middle school's foundation is so shaken that he has to keep paper wedged into drawer openings to prevent them from spilling out.

Springer admits he was eager to bid for the former Central High when it was listed for sale in 2010 by American Farmers and Ranchers Mutual Insurance, which bought it from SBC Oklahoma in 2005.

“We started talking about Central High more than three years ago, back when Cliff Hudson was board chairman,” Springer said. “He wanted us to look at this back when AT&T was first selling it to the insurance company.”

Former Mayor Ron Norick, chairman of the OCU Board of Trustees, is calling on Springer and his school board to reverse course and look at other options.

“What they need is an administration building — office space — where an office building is not going to work for a school like the OCU Law School,” Norick told The Oklahoman. “If they work with us in finding them an alternative location, this could be a win-win for everyone.”

If the old Central High is ideal for the school administration, Norick insists it's even more ideal for the law school — one of only three law schools in the state.

“A lot of our students are working downtown, many in law offices, and they want to further their education,” Norick said. “Having our facility downtown, two blocks from the federal courthouse, county courthouse, all the law firms, it's a great fit, and of course, there's ample parking.”

Norick argues a sale to OCU would result in bigger boost for downtown with the prospect of students and professors choosing to live nearby. He reasons the students and faculty would also seek recreation downtown, frequent area restaurants and businesses, and spur more development in the surrounding area.

The move of OCU's law school, he adds, would also give downtown its first full-fledged major college presence and free up much-needed classroom space for growing pre-med offerings and relieve parking shortages on the university's main campus at 2501 N Blackwelder Ave.

Springer, meanwhile, sees a move into the old Central High as an opportunity to raise the profile and image of Oklahoma City Public Schools and improve overall efficiency and operations.

Second choice

The desire by OCU and Oklahoma City Public Schools to join the downtown renaissance is not a new development.

In 2008, former Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent John Porter looked at the old Masonic Temple, best known as the former Journal Record Building, 621 N Robinson Ave., as a home for the school's administration. A year later, OCU President Tom McDaniel announced he had signed a letter of intent with the owners of the former Fred Jones Ford Model T plant at 900 W Main to convert it into a new home for the university's new law school.

A deal never commenced for the Journal Record Building, which is owned by the Oklahoma City Industrial and Cultural Facilities Trust, and the agreement on the Model T plant was scrapped less than a year after it was announced and shortly after McDaniel's retirement.

Both groups had their reasons for not going with their earlier picks.

When Springer was hired, shortly after consideration of the Journal Record Building was abandoned, the school administration employed about 250 people. That work force is now at 200, but Springer desires a building that will also house the teachers union, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation, adult education classes and other programs.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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