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The future of an Oklahoma college is unclear as its campus goes up for auction

Bacone College Website

The oldest college in Oklahoma is facing a murky future as its property is scheduled for auction.

Bacone College in Muskogee, a school serving many underprivileged and Indigenous students, lost a contract lawsuit brought by Utah-based Midgley-Huber Energy Concepts (MHEC). The lawsuit was over unpaid HVAC work totaling more than $1.5 million.

College administrators have said the institution does not have the money to pay, so their land and buildings have been put up for auction by the sheriff's office. The auction is scheduled for Dec. 14.

Chris Oberle, owner of MHEC and its parent company, Midgley-Huber Inc., said he wants to place a bid.

"If I show up to the auction and there's nobody else there, I will probably bid on it and buy it for the $3 million, most likely," he said. "That's the plan."

Bacone's debt problem

In January, a Muskogee District Court judge ruled in summary judgment that Bacone must pay back over $1 million to MHEC after the company sued for breach of contract in 2020. Additional fees have racked up to make the cost over $1.5 million.

Bacone administrators have said the school's previous president, Ferlin Clark, signed off on a renovation to dormitory HVAC work before the school had the funds to pay for it. Clark was then ousted by the board for reasons that have not been disclosed.

An OPMX reporter attempted to locate and contact Clark, but was unsuccessful.

A back-and-forth ensued about whether the school would go up for auction or not. The school tried appealing the district court's decision but voluntarily withdrew.

Bacone's interim president, Dr. Nicky Michael, said the school agreed to forfeit any right to appeal to prevent an auction from happening.

"They rescinded putting us on the first auction because we said we would not appeal," Michael said.

On Nov. 15, the court gave notice that the college's property would be put up for auction again. School officials said the news of the new auction took them by surprise. They say they were never served paperwork about the new auction date.

"We were not served, our attorneys were not served, so we had no idea about the auction until we read it in the newspapers," Michael said.

Michael said MHEC did a subpar job when doing the HVAC renovation in the first place. Oberle disagrees with that assertion.

Payment plans

According to school officials, Bacone proposed a payment plan that the company "flatly rejected."

Michael provided selected copies of emails sent between Bacone's lead attorney and an attorney representing MHEC.

In it, MHEC emailed on June 1 a proposal to purchase the land for $3 million and enter into a two-year lease agreement with Bacone. MHEC proposed this as a way of the school paying off its debts and possibly buying the land back at a later date.

Bacone's attorney responded on July 10 asking if the purchase price could be increased because "Bacone’s outstanding debts right now exceed $3 million." Bacone's attorney relayed "$4.5 or $5 million" as the suggested new price.

On July 10, Bacone's attorney sent an offer for a payment plan for MHEC to consider: "I spoke to the client, and they could offer a $100K initial payment and then a $40K payment every month after that. Let me know if your client is interested."

On July 14, MHEC's attorney responded saying "the only viable option is as originally set forth below," referring to the original purchase agreement proposal.

Before receiving copies of the email correspondence, a different attorney for MHEC told KWGS and other media outlets that no such payment plan was ever received by the company.

Too little, too late

Oberle said the payment plan was offered too late for the company to accept it.

"They hadn't proven themselves at all in any way for two and a half years," he said. "It's just another stall tactic. Why didn't they send us $40,000 a month for the last two years?"

Oberle said his plan to bid on the school during the Dec. 14 auction isn't foolproof.

"My guess is there'll be others [that will] show up there to bid on it," he said, "but if there's not, then I'll probably be the only—the high[est] and the only bidder on it and we'll be done with it... and maybe they'll stay. Maybe I'll let 'em stay."

When asked to clarify if he would allow the college to continue operating were he to bid and win, Oberle said he would, at least for the next semester.

"I would let them stay through the spring and finish out this semester," he said. "The students didn't cause this. The teachers didn't cause this. They're innocent bystanders."

Oberle said that after the spring semester, he'd like to "sit down and have discussions and say 'okay, do you have some kind of a business plan?'"

The bystanders

Michael said many students at the school come from Indigenous communities.

"These young native people are now experiencing another time when a corporate entity can come in and take the very land with which was theirs,” Michael said. "This is colonization. This is no different than it was 200 years ago when they were taking our land."

Michael said the school is now trying to raise cash through donations, including from their website.

"I really, really am holding out hope and we're praying, but I have not heard from anybody that says, 'Yeah, we're going to help you out," she said.

Dr. Leslie Hannah is the director of education for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. He said he's been on Bacone's board for a few months.

Hannah is uncertain about Bacone's future given the impending auction.

"If the sale goes through, depending upon who buys it, it could mean the end of the oldest institution of higher education in the state of Oklahoma," he said.

Bacone was founded in 1880, initially known as "The Indian University" and run by Baptist missionaries.

The school reworked itself into a tribal-centered and tribal-run institution. It recently tried to transition from its private status, aiming to be a public tribal college and therefore eligible for federal funding under the Bureau of Indian Education.

"We have 45 different tribal nations that have sent their students to our school just last year," Michael said.

If the school cannot continue to operate, administrators said the school is preparing to either transfer students to other schools or get them into the workforce with partial education.

"Our students are the most underserved in the entire country," Michael said. "They deserve to have a good education."

Corrected: December 6, 2023 at 2:17 PM CST
This article has been corrected to reflect the correct date of the first email in the above-mentioned set.
Ben Abrams is a news reporter and All Things Considered host for KWGS.
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