OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — 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 was already 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 was recently 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.
Supporters of the shelter proposal, including teachers and families of children killed in the suburban Moore tornado, are trying to collect 155,000 signatures to put the question on the 2014 ballot. Organizers said they were about 40,000 signatures short by Monday’s deadline, but have asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court for additional time.
Oklahoma is dead center in the Great Plains corridor known as tornado alley. Every spring when twister season arrives, school children follow a familiar ritual of filing to interior hallways, gymnasiums or — in the more affluent districts — reinforced shelters for state-mandated storm drills.
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.
“Safe rooms are a tremendous cost when you don’t have the support and the growth for bond issues,” said Robert Trammell, the superintendent in Snyder, a ranching town with 1,400 people, about the same size it was in 1940. The town has three schools built in the 1930s and one in the 1950s. A twister killed 97 people in Snyder in 1905.
After budget cuts during the recession, the district is still retrenching. It dropped the wrestling program this year.
“There’s no meat left on the bone,” said Trammell, who said students will use hallways and bathrooms for storm protection though they don’t meet federal standards.
In Norman, reinforcing the gym added $200,000 to the cost.
Students in Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore were also 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.
Dorman, a Democrat, said he wasn’t trying to put Republicans in a difficult political position with his proposal. He said he chose the franchise tax because the Legislature had temporarily suspended it so the money wasn’t spoken for. The revenue would be used for the bond payments.
“That just seemed like the best place to draw the money without hurting the budget,” he said.
But Republican leaders maintain that eliminating taxes, especially those on businesses, will encourage more investment in the state, generating more money for communities to pay for their own needs.
Since the rebuff, supporters of the shelter initiative, organized as Take Shelter Oklahoma, have become embroiled in a dispute with Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt and the State Chamber over Pruitt’s use of wording in the ballot initiative that emphasizes the funding mechanism.
Some fear the issue is becoming hopelessly entangled in politics.
“When people are holding press conferences in front of the attorney general’s office attacking the state chamber, we have gone far afield from the issue of our children’s safety,” said Republican Sen. David Holt of Oklahoma City.