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January 31, 2014

Legislators debate who should build school shelters

OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislative leaders say they won’t demand that Oklahoma’s public schools build storm shelters to protect their students, saying such decisions should be left to local officials.

Two competing tornado shelter plans are being floated as Oklahoma lawmakers prepare to reconvene Monday for the 2014 legislative session. A legislator suggests a $500 million state bond package that local school districts could use to build the shelters, while Gov. Mary Fallin wants to let districts raise the money locally with expanded borrowing authority.

Fallin’s office said Thursday that language outlining her plan had been placed in a House resolution that, if approved by the Legislature and attorney general, would go before voters in November.

The issue emerged after seven children died inside a Moore elementary school when a tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb in May. Despite the heightened focus on school safety, Fallin and House and Senate leaders say school construction is typically a function of school boards.

“I believe the state should stay out of telling local school districts to build shelters,” Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said at an Associated Press pre-session forum at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Bingman and House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, R-Enid, each said it isn’t the state’s job to mandate how districts do their jobs. They later acknowledged the state does mandate certain academic standards, but that those should be considered separately from other issues.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Jackson said, before saying it’s also important to not impose on local districts. “Of course, I’m going to want my kids to be as safe as they possibly can, but that being said, I also don’t want to mandate in certain instances that they have to do certain things.”

He said the state should intervene only if necessary.

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