A group filed a petition with the state Wednesday in hopes of allowing Oklahomans to vote on a $500 million bond issue to pay for storm shelters in public schools.
“The critical need for storm shelters is very evident,” said Kathy Turner, former superintendent of Fletcher Public Schools and the chairwoman of Take Shelter Oklahoma, the group behind the petition.
“It's not a matter of if we're going to have bad weather, it's a matter of when and where the tornadoes will strike,” Turner said. “It's not a matter of if there's going to be damage, it's a matter of how much destruction, how many people injured, and how many people killed.”
Once the attorney general approves the petition, it is up to the group's supporters to get the signatures of 160,000 registered Oklahoma voters within the next 90 days.
Garnering the signatures would put a bond issue to pay for the shelters on a statewide ballot.
About the proposal
According to Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, who is working with Take Shelter Oklahoma, the proposed bond issue would require schools to raise a portion of the funds that could then be matched by state and federal dollars, including money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The bond would not increase taxes because it would use money available through the state's existing franchise tax, he said.
Sherry Labyer, superintendent for Duncan Public Schools, said she believes the initiative is a feasible way to help pay for school shelters.
“I think it's the public's responsibility to try to help schools with safety measures, and we don't have the funds,” Labyer said.
The majority of Labyer's schools already have shelters, some of which were paid for through local bond issues. She said they are exploring options to put shelters in the remaining four schools that don't have them currently.
According to Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, those four schools are among over 1,700 facilities in the Oklahoma public school system that may either need new shelters or ones created by retrofitting existing structures.
Ashwood said he is less concerned about where the money will come from and more concerned about the depth and scope of the need.
“Our real interest is trying to develop a program,” Ashwood said. “Even if you gave me a lot of money right now I wouldn't know what school to start on first.”
Ashwood said he hopes to have a full report detailing the need of school districts and facilities and how best to begin the process of building shelters.
Nikki Davis' 8-year-old son Kyle was among the seven students killed at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore during the May 20 tornado.
She said the bond issue and a private fund established to raise money for school shelters give her hope that her son did not die in vain.
“We don't understand why our son was taken, but if it was so that other children in the future can be saved, then that makes us proud parents,” Davis said.