Take Shelter Oklahoma is a movement that comes four months after a series of tornadoes ripped through southwest Oklahoma City and Moore, killing 47 people, including seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary.
Twisters also struck Canadian Valley Vocational Technology Center on May 31 and leveled parts of Pottawatomie County on May 19, killing two people in Shawnee.
Kathy Turner, chairwoman of Take Shelter Oklahoma and a former school superintendent, said the drive to collect 160,000 signatures of registered voters is an apolitical movement.
“This is not a Democrat-versus-Republican issue or urban versus rural or local control versus state control. This is a children’s issue. It’s about protecting our youngest citizens from a real threat that we all know,” she said. “This is about taking care of our children in Oklahoma.”
Supporters will begin asking for signatures at locations throughout Oklahoma, including high school football games, the Oklahoma State Fair and the OU-OSU bedlam football game scheduled for Dec. 7. Take Shelter Oklahoma has 90 days to obtain the 160,000 signatures.
Protecting students from future deadly twisters should be a top priority for all Oklahomans, Turner said.
“It’s not a matter of if we’re going to have bad weather. It’s a matter of when and where we’re going to have bad weather,” she said. “It’s a matter of how much damage will be done and how many people will be killed.”
Turner was administrator at Bridge Creek schools on May 3, 1999, when the infamous F-5 twister swept through southwest OKC and Moore. Although the tornado went around the Bridge Creek school, Turner found herself in an unenviable position as the manager of a makeshift morgue at the school.
“My job was to identify the dead who were my friends and neighbors and coworkers. It was truly a dark night in my soul that no one should ever have to experience,” she said.
Turner was joined at the State Capitol news conference by members of the Take Shelter Oklahoma steering committee, including State Rep. Joe Dorman and other supporters, including several parents whose children died at Plaza Towers.
The initiative petition calls for $500 million to construct storm shelters. The bond issue, if approved by voters, would be funded by the state’s existing franchise tax and would not raise taxes of any kind. If Take Shelter Oklahoma is able to gain the required number of signatures, Gov. Mary Fallin would set a date to place the issue on a statewide ballot.
Dorman and Turner stressed it’s important to fund the school storm shelters in this manner because local school districts already are in a financial pinch.
Turner emphasized that public school funding has been cut 20 percent since 2007 and that transportation reimbursement for local districts has not been addressed in 20 years.
“If we left this solely to school districts, scores of communities would have no option but to raise property taxes,” Dorman said.
He believes that using the existing franchise tax as the funding mechanism, everyone wins.
“This is absolutely a win-win for the people of Oklahoma, particularly our youngest and most vulnerable generations,” the lawmaker said.
Under the petition, a $500 million bond issue would allow Oklahoma school districts to possibly leverage Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money for a three-to-one match, depending on federal guidelines and available funds. Since the program can be renewed in the future, districts that already have adequate shelters would receive the benefit in future years as new construction occurs.
“I see this issue as similar to an insurance policy,” Dorman said. “You hope you never have to use it, but you sure are glad you have it when catastrophe strikes.”
The 2015 International Building Code now requires that newly built schools have storm shelters able to withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour.