MOORE (AP) — Family members of students who died in an elementary school that was destroyed by a massive tornado helped launch an initiative petition drive Wednesday to finance storm shelters for every public school in Oklahoma, a goal civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson said was “a moral obligation.”
Organizers of Take Shelter Oklahoma launched the storm shelter petition for the second time as they gathered with Jackson near the site of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, where seven students died when a massive tornado ravaged the community and leveled the school May 20, 2013.
“How we treat children, how we treat people in danger, is a measure of our character,” Jackson said. “It’s about our humanity. This is about our human family.”
“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Mikki Davis, the mother of one of the students killed at Plaza Towers, 8-year-old Kyle Davis.
“We know firsthand what can happen,” Danni Legg, whose son, 9-year-old Christopher Legg, also died in Plaza Towers, said as she fought back tears. “It shouldn’t have happened.
“This is about the lives of children and the future of Oklahoma,” she said.
The petition is the second launched by supporters seeking a statewide vote to fund the storm shelter plan. Advocates originally launched a signature-gathering campaign last September, calling for a $500 million bond issue to fund the initiative.
But they abandoned it in April after complaining that changes to the ballot title made by Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office shifted the focus from the construction of school storm shelters to how they would be funded — through a franchise tax on businesses.
A legislative effort, supported by Gov. Mary Fallin, to help some of Oklahoma’s school districts pay for safety upgrades also failed. Opponents argued the proposed constitutional amendment did not go far enough and only would have affected 25 school districts that are near their bonding capacity — about 3 percent of the more than 500 in Oklahoma.
The new initiative petition will still call for a $500 million bond issue to fund the shelters, but shifts the source of the funds to the state’s general revenue fund, which is tapped by nearly every state agency. The fund’s budget will be $5.7 billion during the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Legg said she was saddened by the political and legal turmoil that was stirred by the first initiative petition drive.
“We wanted positive change,” Legg said.
“This is not a political thing,” Davis said.
Jackson, who wore a T-shirt bearing the names of the seven students who died in last year’s tornado, said the tragedy could be turned into an opportunity to protect the state’s more than 500,000 schoolchildren and school staff members.
“We cannot be divided about this,” said Jackson, whose words were sometimes drowned out by construction equipment being used to build a new Plaza Towers Elementary School that is scheduled to open in the upcoming school year. “We want to be wise and not foolish people.”
Jackson said it was “emotionally draining” to meet the families of the tornado’s young victims, including “those who grieve too much to come today.
“The school is a tombstone to them,” he said.
Attorney David Slane, who drafted the new initiative petition and its ballot title, said it will be formally filed within the next week. Supporters will have 90 days to gather the signatures of about 155,000 registered voters to get the measure on the November ballot.