Little Progress Made To Put Storm Shelters In Oklahoma Schools

Wednesday, July 30th 2014, 11:12 pm
By: News 9

If there was a silver lining in the deaths of seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore last year, it could only have been the resulting commitment to make sure such a tragedy could never happen again.

State and local leaders were quick to declare the need for storm shelters in every school -- no student, teacher or other school staff should be unprotected in the event of severe weather.

The declarations were emotional and passionate. It would take years and a lot of money, but it had to be done.
"Here we are, somewhat over a year since those graphic tornadoes and horrible things took place," noted state Representative Richard Morrissette, "and what's happened? Hardly anything."

Rep. Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, says we're no closer today to fortifying our public schools than we were when everyone first started talking about it.

"The momentum that we saw, the emotional spirit that occurred right after those tornadoes has dissipated," lamented Morrissette, "and I guess we're gonna wait until the next cataclysmic event."

9/26/2013 Related Story: Report Says Thousands Of Oklahoma Students, Teachers Unprotected From Tornadoes

As frustrated as Morrissette may be, others take the lack of progress personally.

"I feel lied to, misled, by different politicians," Danni Legg said.

Legg's son, Christopher, was one of the seven children killed at Plaza Towers on May 20, 2013. She's been an outspoken advocate for putting safe rooms in schools ever since.

"It's something that has to be done, it needs to be done," said Legg. "We need to protect our children."

In the immediate aftermath of the May 20 EF5, elected leaders at every level were feeling protective.

"When we say that we've got your back, I promise you that we keep our word," President Obama said as he toured the damage in Moore about a week after the tornado.

Politicians made a lot of promises, but for Legg and Mikki Davis, who also lost a child at Plaza Towers, no promise was more important than the pledge to put shelters in schools. It is a way that they can feel that the deaths of their kids had meaning.

"Any shelter that's put in is one more child that's more," said Davis, "but I want every school."

There are about 1,800 public schools in the state. According to a survey conducted last summer by the State Department of Education, 39 percent have structures that could be used as shelters in an emergency (this includes basements and cellars). Just about a quarter have safe rooms or shelters that meet FEMA specifications.

9/27/2013 Related Story: More Than Half Of Oklahoma Schools Do Not Have Storm Shelters

It's estimated the cost of bringing either of those percentages to 100 would be anywhere from $500 million to well over $1 billion.

Still, lawmakers said they would find a way -- this was too important to Oklahoma's children.

"We need to make sure they're safe," said Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who was among the first to get involved in the effort.

The first initiative was announced just days after the May 20 tornado -- the formation of the non-profit, Shelter Oklahoma Schools, to funnel donations to school safe room construction.

The two most ambitious plans came later.

In September, Rep. Dorman and another newly formed group, Take Shelter Oklahoma, launched a petition drive to authorize a $500 million bond issue, funded with state franchise taxes, to pay for safe rooms.

In late January, just before the start of the legislative session, Governor Mary Fallin introduced a bill to allow school districts a one-time property tax increase to fund school shelters.

"Ironically, two different vehicles, authored and advanced by the two nominees for Governor," Political Analyst Scott Mitchell observed.

Not surprisingly, Mitchell says, things got political. Democrats and rural Republicans took aim at the governor's proposal.

"This represents the potential largest property tax increase in state history," Rep. Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City, said during floor debate on the measure.

"You have an opportunity to send the message that we do care!" Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, countered.

Meanwhile, the initiative petition had also run into a roadblock. Attorney General Scott Pruitt asserted the ballot's title was insufficient and would have to be rewritten to more accurately reflect the intent of the measure. In April, the Oklahoma Supreme Court affirmed Pruitt's position.

"We didn't do it right before, we ran into political opposition," David Slane, an attorney for Take Shelter Oklahoma, said.

By the first anniversary of the deadly tornado, both measures had sputtered and died.

"You can't maintain that level of emotion for a long period of time," said Mitchell, "and the political will just gave out."

Now, 14 months after the fact, lawmakers see the effort in a different light.

"Realistically, we're not gonna put a storm shelter in every school in the state," said Rep. Mark McBride, who lives in Moore and has been involved in the town's recovery from day one.

Rep. McBride, R-Moore, says Shelter Oklahoma Schools, the very first initiative, is at least doing something. McBride says the non-profit has helped fund 11 safe rooms in the past year, and there's still money remaining to help build several more.

1/6/2014 Related Story: 'Shelter Oklahoma Schools' Donates Check To Western Heights District

"I mean, if we do twenty," said McBride, "it's twenty more than anything else has done."

Take Shelter Oklahoma launched a second initiative petition drive at the beginning of July. This measure would also authorize a $500 million bond sale, but would pay that back through general revenues, not the franchise tax. The ballot title and language have been approved, which means the group has until October to gather 155,000 signatures in order for the question to be placed on the November ballot.

7/6/2014 Related Story: Storm Shelter Initiative May Stress General Fund