An $11 million elementary school building planned for downtown could become a hybrid-charter school run by both Oklahoma City Public Schools and a group of prominent urban business leaders.
It would be a compromise born from nine months of negotiations between the district and a group that once was looking to open its own privately run but publicly funded school downtown.
“Ordinarily, school districts oppose charter schools. If they succeed, they succeed at the expense of the district,” said former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, who heads the charter school group.
That's not the case with this school, he said.
“When this (elementary) school succeeds, it will be a victory for the district,” he said.
That's because the largest district in the state actually would be the charter school applicant, reversing its typical role, and requesting that a university be the sponsoring entity for the school.
“We're not handing it over,” said Oklahoma City School Board member Phil Horning, who has been one of the district's top negotiators. “We're going to participate with them fully. We are every bit a district school. We're the charter applicant.”
“We are not a foreign body,” he said. “We are an Oklahoma City district school. They're not turning over anything.”
The two sat down Thursday with The Oklahoman to discuss the draft agreement, which is nearing completion.
Humphreys and Horning declined to speculate how long it might take to tie up the loose ends.
“That school hasn't been constructed yet, so we don't have a deadline,” Horning said.
At the very earliest, the school that hasn't even been designed could open August 2013.
Once an agreement is reached, it will have to be approved by both the Oklahoma City School Board and the 27-member board for Oklahoma City Quality Schools. And then it would depend on approval from a chartering entity, likely the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University or both.
A name for the school already has been proposed — John W. Rex Elementary School — for the late philanthropic businessman whose generosity left a huge mark on public and early childhood education.
In the proposal, a 15-member board would govern the school, making decisions about the academic curriculum, leadership, personnel matters and even the length of the school day and school year.
Six members would be appointed by the district and six members would be selected by Oklahoma City Quality Schools. Those 12 members would then appoint three remaining members.
Who will attend?
One of the sticking points in negotiations is the attendance boundaries of the school, or the geographic area from which the students will be drawn. The prekindergarten- through-12th-grade school will serve 500 students.
Typically, charter schools don't have traditional attendance boundaries, but Horning said they want this to be a community school that serves a defined population.
A site has been tentatively selected for the school — a vacant lot on the southwest corner of Sheridan and Walker avenues — which puts the school in the heart of downtown close to museums, the library, Myriad Gardens and other great resources.
But it's also a site without a large student population nearby.
Horning and Humphreys both said the attendance boundaries wouldn't go north far enough to cut into the boundaries of Wilson Elementary School, which has been very successful.
And to the east, elementary schools have been struggling to maintain class sizes, with the closest school to downtown closing a year ago. There is, however, a sizable student population in the area south of the Oklahoma River.
The idea behind the charter is that vacant seats in the school that are not filled by students within an attendance boundary would be filled by students transferring in using a suggested preference ranking that's in the draft agreement.
First preference would be given to students in the school boundaries. Outside of that a slight advantage is given to students whose parents work in the downtown area.
“Too much demand would be a wonderful thing,” Humphreys said.
Horning and Humphreys said they are stronger together.
“The business community has resources that are not made available to the school district every day,” Horning said.
The current agreement, that is likely to undergo changes, calls for the Oklahoma City Quality Schools to provide additional private donations of at least $1.5 million during the first five years.
Humphreys said because the businessmen's fingerprints will be on the project, they will be more invested in the results and outcome than typical school-business partnerships.
Meanwhile, Humphreys said, they will get a new building paid for by the voter-approved MAPS for Kids bond issue and sales tax. The MAPS for Kids plan promised voters an elementary school downtown.
Humphreys said his vision is that the new school eventually will attract families downtown.
“We're trying to build a city, and we're trying to break this preconceived perception that when you land in Oklahoma City you must go to the suburbs,” Humphreys said. “You're not going to build a strong community with families with school-age children if you don't have a good school downtown.”