OKLAHOMA CITY —
After a huge tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburbs this spring and demolished two elementary schools, killing seven children, a longtime legislator thought the time was ripe for the state to act on a well-known problem.
Although Oklahoma averages more than 50 tornadoes a year, and sometimes gets more than 100, about 60 percent of public schools have no shelters. Cash-strapped districts can’t afford to build them.
Rep. Joe Dorman, who represents the small farming town of Rush Springs, proposed a bond issue, taking advantage of the state’s rebounding economy and revenue from a business tax that already was on the books.
But the response to his proposal has made clear that there’s something more ominous than tornadoes these days in one of the nation’s most conservative states: taxes and borrowing.
The idea has been snubbed by Oklahoma’s political leadership, including Gov. Mary Fallin, triggering a debate over the current push by some GOP-controlled states to cut taxes to improve their business climate instead of using available revenue for longstanding problems.
“It would be nice if every kid in Oklahoma had a safe room to go to,” said Bill Pingleton, the superintendent in the rural town of Tushka, where the school and much of the town were destroyed by a tornado in 2011.
But top officials said the schools shouldn’t expect state help for shelters.
“Just adding on a new tax burden on Oklahomans is not the answer,” said Republican State Superintendent Janet Barresi, Oklahoma’s highest ranking education official.
Republican leaders want to eliminate the franchise tax, a $1.25 levy on every $1,000 a corporation invests in Oklahoma, to help fund the shelter plan. The tax, which has existed since 1963, generates about $40 million annually, but recently was suspended. Since 2010, the Republican-controlled Legislature has cut the personal income tax and several taxes on businesses as part of an aggressive fiscal agenda.
At the new Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Norman, a fast-growing college town in one of the wealthiest counties, every fourth classroom has been outfitted as a shelter with steel-reinforced concrete walls, no windows and a solid steel door.
Parents say the rooms ease their fears.
“I love the idea of having safe rooms in the schools. I wish all schools were like that,” said Alicia McBane, 35, who was selling T-shirts at a recent PTA benefit at the elementary school, where her son is in kindergarten.
At another elementary school in Norman, Truman Primary, children take shelter in a gymnasium with concrete walls designed to withstand winds of 250 mph.
But many more schools in Oklahoma, where median income ranks 36th in the nation, are in WPA-era buildings in rural districts.
Students in Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore also were following the traditional procedure when they clustered in hallways at about 3 p.m. May 20 when an EF-5 tornado swept into the community. Winds measured at more than 200 mph collapsed a concrete wall on the children, ages 8 and 9.