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May 23, 2014

Fallin’s school shelter program narrowly survives

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Mary Fallin watched her plan to build storm shelters in schools wither in the Legislature on Thursday afternoon, only to see members of her Republican Party rally behind and resuscitate her hallmark initiative a few hours later.

In separate debates — on Thursday afternoon and later that night — House members expressed support for the idea of building storm shelters in concept but split on how to best achieve it.

Having killed the plan, the House later reversed course and narrowly passed it.

“It is now up to the Senate to act on this bill and ensure the people of Oklahoma have a chance to vote on a plan to help put more storm shelters and safe rooms in our schools,” Fallin said in a written statement.

On one hand, lawmakers said Fallin’s bill was the last opportunity this year to start a program to put shelters in schools. However, many criticized the bill’s approach, since it only benefitted school districts that have already reached their borrowing limits.

Critics say the bill will target about 25 of 500 school districts — or about 3 percent of Oklahoma students — since it focuses on those districts that had reached their bonding capacity.

Even if the Senate passes the bill, the initiative still needs separate elections — a statewide referendum, as well as local ones — before districts could start building shelters, meaning construction could be at least a year away.

The shelter issue has become a political one following the death of seven children during last year’s tornado that hit Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, which did not have a shelter.

Their deaths raised concerns about many other schools in Oklahoma that are also doing without certified shelters, putting students at risk.

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who co-authored the bill, wanted lawmakers to pass it then return to work on something more comprehensive. But opponents criticized the narrow approach.

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