By Madi Alexander
In the aftermath of May's severe weather, public pressure has been mounting to install storm shelters in schools, but school districts often are unable to put in the required time and funding for such measures.
Concerns about protecting students arose after an EF-5 tornado destroyed two elementary schools May 20 in Moore. Seven children died in the basement of Plaza Towers Elementary. Neither school had safe rooms to protect the nearly 1,600 children and 100 teachers inside.
In the 18 districts that sit partially or completely within Pottawatomie County, more than 6,200 students have no access to an adequate tornado shelter. Only slightly more than one-third of the schools have a basement or safe room.
Three schools in the Shawnee district have a storm shelter or basement, said Marc Moore, superintendent of Shawnee Public Schools.
“The Shawnee Early Childhood Center has a P.E. facility that doubles as a safe room,” he said. “Shawnee Middle School has six classrooms that serve as safe rooms for all the kids in the school.”
Sequoyah Elementary School has a basement capable of holding all 351 students, Moore said.
With enough time and funding, some districts were able to incorporate safe rooms into building plans for new schools. Others constructed safe rooms later on as freestanding buildings. All of the Shawnee safe rooms were incorporated into the school's structure during construction.
“The safe rooms were something we planned for during construction,” he said. “We built them as part of the schools when the schools were constructed.”
Dale Public Schools, which houses pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students on the same campus, constructed a freestanding safe room that doubles as a cafeteria. The safe room, which opened last year, is certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and capable of withstanding an EF-5 tornado.
Some schools use portable buildings, which could prove deadly in the smallest of tornadoes. Students in those districts are transported to other locations to take shelter.
Prague elementary and middle school students are bussed to the high school, where a basement holds all students in the district. Students in Asher are transported to a local church with a basement. Schools without shelters or basements use interior hallways and classrooms for protection.
Officials at the Macomb, Maud, and Wanette school districts did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls for information on shelter facilities.
Page 2 of 3 - District faces challenges during safe room construction
Despite overwhelming public support for shelters in schools, constructing a safe room can be a costly and extensive process.
It took McLoud Public Schools nearly 11 years to fund and construct two safe rooms, Assistant Superintendent Rob Griffin said.
“We started the strategic planning meetings in 2002, where they started to study if it was possible to fund shelters,” he said. “We finished up the last meeting in June 2006.”
McLoud's elementary school safe room cost about $1.3 million to construct, while the middle and high school campus facility cost $915,000. Grants from FEMA covered 75 percent of construction costs, which left the school board responsible for about $555,000.
The high school shelter was completed in October 2011 and the elementary school facility in September 2012, but FEMA still owes the district about $200,000, Griffin said.
FEMA reimburses the school district once certain steps of construction are completed using money from the district's building fund.
“Not having that money hasn't caused us not to be able to complete any projects, but there's always something that needs done,” Griffin said. “There's no school in Oklahoma that doesn't need more money.”
Griffin said he has no idea when FEMA will send the remaining money to the school district.
Legislators divided over shelter funding
Legislators agree that storm shelters in schools are a necessary protection, but there is division over what entity should be in charge of funding shelters.
Rep. Justin Wood, R-Shawnee, said the Legislature plans to leave the decision up to the individual school boards.
“It's been our practice to let the local school districts deal with these issues,” he said. “I don't see a mandate coming from the state to require storm shelters in schools.”
As a parent, Wood said it scares him to send his children to a school without a tornado shelter. But he prefers to let local schools boards, not the state Legislature, handle the issue.
“The will of the House right now, as I see it, is to leave this decision to local school boards,” he said. “This is an issue that will be studied in the interim to decide the best way to handle it.”
Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, proposed an interim study June 14 to examine school shelter policies in other states and determine what federal and state funding is available.
Dorman said he wants to circulate an initiative petition for a $500 million bond to fund storm shelters and safe rooms in public schools.
“Schools districts that can issue a bond and raise enough money usually still need to apply for federal grants to help complete construction,” he said. “Those FEMA grants aren't always going to be available and they won't have enough for all public schools.”
Page 3 of 3 - Bonds are voted upon by registered voters within the school district and are capped based on the taxable property value. Smaller school districts lack the bonding capacity to fund the construction of safe rooms without help from the state and federal governments, Dorman said.
“If we're making people stay in those buildings, we need to make sure the students and teachers are as safe as possible,” he said. “You see what happened in Moore, so we need to do everything we can to make sure our kids are protected from danger.”
Dorman said if students and teachers are required to be at school, even if just for a few hours every day, they need to be given adequate protection in case severe weather strikes during the school day.