By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Moore is among four districts to receive money from Shelter Oklahoma Schools, a nonprofit formed to help schools build tornado safe rooms. A rural school near Chickasha already received $25,000 through the organization.
Moore will receive $500,000 on Dec. 9, said SOS co-founder Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore.
Shelter Oklahoma Schools was created in May following tornadoes that hit Oklahoma and killed seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore. McBride — along with Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, and local business leader John Hunt — created the nonprofit.
“Rep. Echols and I were there when they determined there were still some children in the rubble at Plaza Towers,” McBride said. “We had been at Briarwood and then went to Plaza Towers. A firefighter friend came up and told us what was going on.”
The May 20 tornado killed 24 people and injured at least 100 others in the Moore and Oklahoma City area as it cut a 17-mile long path that started in Newcastle and ended at Lake Stanley Draper. Fourteen miles of that destructive path were through Moore.
“This is such an important mission for us,” Hunt said during a May press conference at the state Capitol. “Once we learned of the tragedy in Moore, we wanted to help. We thought the best route would be to start a fund to get shelters into schools.”
McBride also felt strongly. He has experienced the death of a son and wanted to prevent the further loss of lives.
“The legislative process takes so much time, Rep. Echols and I were trying to think of something we could do right now, so we came up with this idea,” McBride said.
Norman Chrysler Jeep Dodge donated $200,000 in seed money, and Apache Corporation gave $500,000 designated for Moore schools. Other donations followed.
“We were looking for a private sector solution to a problem,” McBride said. “Legislatively, we have been in talks with the governor’s office. A year ago, the lieutenant governor had a task force to look at security in case of a school shooting. Now, what we’re trying to do together is come out with the best thing for safety and security.”
McBride said state lawmakers may look at allowing extra bonding capacity specifically for safety and security in schools. In such cases, the bond issue would still go to a vote of the people and be under local control.
Legal limits: Under current guidelines, bonding capacity can be a problem for school districts wanting to add safe rooms in new construction. Three of Moore’s newest elementary schools — Heritage Trails, Oakridge and Wayland Bonds — did not have the funding to include safe rooms.
In February, Moore voters approved a $126.4 million school bond — the largest in the district’s history.
Originally, those plans did not include safe rooms because the district was bonding to capacity to construct the needed space for basic educational and administrative needs. Those plans were revised to include safe rooms, and SOS money can help.
Adding safe rooms to new construction is the most cost conservative way to provide shelter for schools. In most cases, shelters also serve as classrooms, gymnasiums, cafeterias or band rooms.
Earlier this year, SOS contributed $25,000 to Friend Public School near Chickasha.
“They needed that to complete their shelter,” McBride said. “The students had raised $27,000.”
Now, SOS is giving money to more schools.
“On Monday, we’ll be meeting with Drummond schools and Calumet schools, giving them $100,000 each,” McBride said. “They each were starting construction on new classrooms, and they went back to the architect and wanted to add safe rooms.”
SOS also will give $100,000 to Western Heights, a small independent school district in southwest Oklahoma City.
Commitment to safety: After a tornado hit nearby Moore in 1999, Western Heights worked with Norman architects Boynton Williams & Associates to put safe rooms in all new school construction.
“The board decided that any time there was a significant improvement, we would make the facility tornado safe — that would become a high priority,” former Western Heights Superintendent Joe Kitchens told The Transcript earlier this year. “Each time Moore has been hit, the storms have been within four or five miles from the (Western Heights) school.”
The district received no FEMA funding for the safe rooms.
On May 20, all of the safe rooms were used when the tornado swept through nearby Moore, Kitchens said. However, the district has one school remaining without safe rooms. The money from SOS will help make that safe room possible.
SOS still is taking donations and connecting with schools.
“There is an application process. The money is available,” McBride said. “We don’t want it sitting around. We want to give it to somebody who’s going to use it.”
Because of the nature of the nonprofit, all proceeds go directly to the approved schools.
“There’s no administrative cost,” McBride said. “We take nothing. There’s no staff. The Oklahoma City Community Foundation holds the money. All donations go 100 percent to the school shelter projects.”
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