New Oklahoma School Storm Shelter Proposal

It’s been a little more than a year since seven children were killed when a massive tornado destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, but their families are still no closer to the goal of placing storm shelters in every Oklahoma public school so the lives of other children will not be in peril.

“We need to protect them. It’s a no-brainer,” said Danni Legg, the mother of 9-year-old Christopher, who died on May 20, 2013. She also is one of the organizers of Take Shelter Oklahoma, a group that backs a statewide referendum to fund school storm shelters. “It’s such an important issue with us, we can’t wait. The pain of losing a child is still fresh with me.”

The first initiative petition that would have brought a vote to Oklahoma residents was abandoned in April after the state attorney general made significant changes to the ballot title. And an effort backed by Oklahoma’s governor also failed.

Undaunted, a second try will kick off Wednesday with an event that the Rev. Jesse Jackson is scheduled to attend, said David Slane, the group’s attorney.

“He knows the issue. He understands it,” Slane said of the civil rights activist, whom Slane hopes will re-ignite interest. “We are now over one year since we lost our babies to this storm. We cannot side idly by for another year.”

The community of Joplin, Missouri, quickly moved to construct school shelters after being raked by a tornado in 2011. But advocates in Oklahoma want shelters statewide and also note the issue’s popularity has waned amid a relatively quiet spring tornado season.

“It is a really big concern,” Legg said. “Other states are looking at Oklahoma, seeing what we do.”

Tornado damaged classroom in the Tower Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma. An F5 tornado struck the area on May 20th, causing widespread destruction. Andrea Booher/FEMA
Tornado damaged classroom in the Tower Elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma. An F5 tornado struck the area on May 20th, causing widespread destruction. Andrea Booher/FEMA

Nearly two years before the Moore tornado, Joplin took a direct hit on May 22, 2011 – 161 people died and nearly 7,000 homes were destroyed. Five schools were destroyed and five others were damaged, but because it happened on a Sunday, no one was at those buildings.

Plans are on track to install in 14 schools community shelters large enough to accommodate 15,000 people – including students, school staff and residents of the community. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying 75 percent of the cost, with the district picking up the balance.

“We’ve got six that are functional currently,” Joplin School District Superintendent C.J. Huff said. “Parents are very appreciative. They know their kids have safe locations to go.

“You can’t talk taxes without taking into consideration the life of a child. There should never be a regret,” Huff added.

The seven lives lost at Plaza Towers was the most at an Oklahoma public school since a tornado hit Camel Creek school in Bethany, west of Oklahoma City, on Nov. 19, 1930. The storm blew buildings apart and five students and a teacher were among the 23 dead, according to the National Weather Service.

School shelter supporters originally launched a signature-gathering campaign last September, calling for a $500 million bond issue to fund the initiative. But they abandoned it after complaining that changes to the ballot title made by Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office shifted the focus from the construction of school storm shelters to how they would be funded – through a franchise tax on businesses.

A legislative effort, supported by Gov. Mary Fallin, to help some of Oklahoma’s school districts pay for safety upgrades also failed. Opponents argued the proposed constitutional amendment did not go far enough and would affect only 25 school districts that are near their bonding capacity – about 3 percent of the more than 500 in Oklahoma.

The new initiative petition will still call for a $500 million bond issue to fund the shelters, but shifts the source of the funds to the state’s general revenue fund, which is tapped by nearly every state agency. In 2015, the fund’s budget will be $5.7 billion.

Slane, whose two children attend public schools in Moore, said he plans to seek the support of Fallin and other state officials to avoid the same kind of legal tug-of-war that embroiled the first petition effort.

“I want this to be about kids. I don’t this to be about politics or the law,” Slane said.

Starting in early June, supporters will have 90 days to gather the signatures of about 155,000 registered voters to get the measure on the November ballot.