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Push for School Storm Shelters Renewed Through Oklahoma Petition Drive

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Tornado-damage-Plaza-Towers-Elementary-blog .jpgSaying Oklahoma has a "moral obligation" to protect the state's children from deadly tornados, a group launched a renewed push this week to issue $500 million in state bonds to pay for school storm shelters, The Oklahoman reported. The group—which includes parents whose children were among seven killed when a May 2013 tornado struck Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla.—has 90 days to collect the more than 150,000 signatures necessary to put the issue on the ballot for the November general election. If the drive is successful and voters approve the measure, the bonds will be repaid through the state's general revenues.

Education Week covered the initial drive to build shelters following that devastating tornado:

"At the elementary schools destroyed in Moore, principals said they heeded district warnings about an impending tornado. Students and teachers were stationed where they had practiced to go.

But they had no control over the buildings' ability to withstand such winds. Some children in hallways and under desks were trapped alive by collapsed walls and roofs.

Seven 2nd and 3rd graders at Plaza Towers Elementary died when debris impeded their breathing, the Oklahoma City medical examiner said.

Parts of Plaza Tower Elementary were 47 years old, and Briarwood was 28 years old. In districts nationwide, many school buildings date to the turn of the 20th century. Bulldozing and rebuilding them all is a financial impossibility, said Ms. Calder of the Texas School Safety Center."

Decisions about whether to build school storm shelters and, more specifically, who will finance such construction are more complicated than they may initially seem. The nearly 12,000 safe rooms Oklahoma built with federal aid eclipse those subsidized in all other states, we've reported in the past. Some districts raise local funds to include such shelters in new construction projects or to retrofit old buildings. In Oklahoma, a "tornado alley" state with a tradition of local control, supporters of the petition drive are calling for state support. From The Oklahoman:

"[Petition supporter and attorney David] Slane said it's an important mission. Sixty-one percent of Oklahoma public schools currently lack storm shelters, leaving more than 506,000 students and faculty vulnerable, he said."

There have been earlier shelter efforts that may have lost steam because of partisan supporters, the paper reported. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman supported proposal to fund shelters with the proceeds of a $500 million state bond issue that would be repaid through franchise taxes. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin supported a different plan that "called for a statewide vote on whether school districts should be permitted to vote to exceed their bonding limits one time to fund storm shelters and other school security improvements," The Oklahoman reported. That plan was defeated in the state senate.

Photo: Debris is strewn about amid the wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Okla., after a deadly tornado swept through the town in May, 2013. (Brennan Linsley/AP-file)

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