The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

January 30, 2014

Legislators debate who should build tornado shelters in state’s schools

Legislative leaders say they won’t demand that Oklahoma’s public schools build storm shelters to protect their students, saying such decisions should be left to local officials.Two competing tornado shelter plans are being floated as Oklahoma lawmakers prepare to reconvene Monday for the 2014 legislative session. A legislator suggests a $500 million state bond package that local school districts could use to build the shelters, while Gov. Mary Fallin wants to let districts raise the money locally with expanded borrowing authority.

Fallin’s office said Thursday language outlining her plan had been placed in a House resolution that, if approved by the Legislature and attorney general, would go before voters in November.

Amber Fitzgerald, director of communication and human resources for Enid Public Schools, expressed disappointment with the governor’s proposal.

“There is nothing more important than student safety, so we appreciate the discussion that has been taking place across the state about this issue,” Fitzgerald. “As state leaders have noted, it will be incredibly expensive to outfit all Oklahoma schools with shelters or safe rooms. School districts are expected to do so much with so little, and bond issues are already necessary to meet the needs of students, including buildings, technology, buses and learning materials. We are still optimistic that the state will find a way to assist districts financially with this important safety need.”

The issue emerged after seven children died inside a Moore elementary school when a tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb in May. Despite the heightened focus on school safety, Fallin and House and Senate leaders say school construction is typically a function of school boards.

“I believe the state should stay out of telling local school districts to build shelters,” Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said at an Associated Press pre-session forum at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Bingman and House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, R-Enid, each said it isn’t the state’s job to mandate how districts do their jobs. They later acknowledged the state does mandate certain academic standards, but those should be considered separately from other issues.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Jackson said, before saying it’s also important to not impose on local districts. “Of course, I’m going to want my kids to be as safe as they possibly can, but that being said, I also don’t want to mandate in certain instances that they have to do certain things.”

He said the state should intervene only if necessary.

“We can discuss the possibility of set-aside and allowing maybe schools that can’t afford it. We can have that discussion, too, to allow them to maybe tap into some state funding,” he said. “That being said, that should be the decision that local parents and local entities make themselves.”

Bingman said academic standards — such as a new requirement that third-graders reach reading benchmarks before entering fourth grade — are intended to “raise the bar” and ensure Oklahoma children are successful. Construction matters are rightfully discussed locally, he said.

Attempting to raise money locally is a gamble, as school district patrons would have to vote to increase their taxes to protect children from a rare occurrence. Tornadoes in Oklahoma typically strike after school hours.

Fallin said a statewide assessment of school facilities conducted after the Moore tornado found more than a quarter of schools already have shelters or some type of safe room. Under her plan, if a district already has a safe room, it can add other safety features such as bulletproof glass or metal detectors.

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