Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.

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Oklahoma Watch
11:46 am
Wed July 23, 2014

Information Scarce On ‘Dark Money’ Group In Superintendent Campaign

Brian Hardzinski KGOU

An independent expenditure group that paid for television advertisements opposing State Superintendent Janet Barresi in last month’s primary has not filed required spending reports with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

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Oklahoma Tornado Project
9:30 am
Wed July 23, 2014

Auditing The Storm: Cities, State Scramble To Spend Community Storm Grants

A photograph giving an overhead view of tornado damage in Moore, Oklahoma on May 21, 2013.
Oklahoma National Guard Wikipedia Commons

More than half of the federal disaster funds being offered to Oklahoma for recovery from the violent storms of 2013 are in the form of community development grants.

But that cash aid comes with strings attached. And those strings have state and local officials scrambling to figure out how to spend the money effectively and whether they can meet federal deadlines in spending all of the grant funds, totaling $146 million. Whatever is not spent will be left on the table.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has approved two rounds of community development block grants tied to Disaster 4117, which covers the severe tornadoes and storms that struck in 21 counties between May 18 and June 2 last year. These grants can be used for housing, economic development, infrastructure and prevention against future damage.

The state of Oklahoma was awarded $93.7 million, to be distributed to local governments; Moore received two direct awards totaling $52.2 million.

One of the biggest challenges in spending the money is a requirement that more than half of the grant funds be spent to benefit low- to moderate-income people or areas affected by a disaster. Low to moderate income is defined as those living at or below 80 percent of a metropolitan area’s median income level. In Oklahoma City, that equated to $48,000 for a family of four in 2013.

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Oklahoma Watch
6:31 pm
Tue July 22, 2014

Q&A: How ‘Obamacare’ Court Rulings Could Affect Oklahoma

Credit Lora Zibman / Flickr Creative Commons

On Tuesday, two federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings on the legality of tax subsidies being provided to people who bought “Obamacare” health insurance policies in Oklahoma and 35 other states.

Here’s a look at the rulings’ potential impact in Oklahoma.

I’m confused. What did the courts rule today?

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Education
8:20 pm
Mon July 21, 2014

Oklahoma City Schools Sign Presidential Education Pledge

Credit Nick Conroy / Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma City Public Schools is among 60 of the nation’s largest districts throwing their support behind a presidential initiative meant to ensure more students of color are succeeding academically.

While promoting his initiative Monday, President Barack Obama said 60 districts signed a pledge to participate in the initiative called My Brother’s Keeper. Obama first unveiled the program in February.

The goal of the initiative is to improve graduation rates among black and Hispanic male students, improve academic performance and ensure students are ready for college or the workforce.

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Oklahoma Tornado Project
9:39 am
Mon July 21, 2014

Auditing The Storm: Hazard Funds Don’t Always Go To Damaged Areas

An overturned car after the May 20, 2013 tornado in Moore.
Oklahoma Watch

As a massive tornado bore down on Moore on the afternoon of May 20, 2013, residents scrambled to find shelter.

Some retreated to safe rooms at home or in buildings. Many hid in closets, bathrooms or hallways.

Meanwhile, in Stillwater, people were also on alert because a tornado watch had been issued that day. But the city received only a light rain and no wind damage, according to the National Weather Service.

The destruction and deaths caused by the Moore tornado led many people in the city to believe that a residential storm shelter was essential.

But after the May 20 tornado, when the federal government began approving cash aid for projects like shelters to prevent the future loss of life and property, Moore was shut out of the program, according to data analyzed by Oklahoma Watch in a joint project with KGOU Radio/The Oklahoma Tornado Project.

Stillwater, on the other hand, has so far gotten the largest share of federal “hazard mitigation” funds released under the presidential disaster declaration, records show. Stillwater will spend about $1.9 million, most of it federal money, to help pay for more than 700 safe rooms in residents’ homes. The same program will allow Oklahoma State University there to spend $73,000 to install a lightning detection and warning system, needed partly for sporting events.

Moore has not been left out in the cold.

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Oklahoma Tornado Project
9:37 am
Mon July 21, 2014

Auditing the Storm: Hazard Mitigant Projects

Education
7:15 am
Thu July 17, 2014

UPDATE: Fallin's Office Says Barresi Will Not Be Secretary Of Education

Gov. Mary Fallin and State Superintendent Janet Barresi
Oklahoma State Department of Education

This post was updated at 12:36 CDT 

Gov. Mary Fallin’s office has offered its strongest rebuke yet to rumors that Superintendent Janet Barresi could be the state’s next secretary of education.

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Oklahoma Tornado Project
9:30 am
Wed July 16, 2014

Auditing The Storm: Thousands Of Disaster-Aid Requests End In Rejection

Susan Montesano and her two children, Aspen, 4 and Braden, 2 escaped from her and her fiancé’s rented house in Moore before it was leveled by the May 20 tornado. They received a $15,000 disaster-aid check within days.
Clifton Adcock Oklahoma Watch

Although millions of dollars in federal aid money began pouring into Oklahoma shortly after the spring 2013 storms, not all who asked for help received it.

The Oklahoma National Guard sought $22,074 for taking Gov. Mary Fallin on a helicopter survey of the damage from the May 20 tornado, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the request.

Mid-Del Public Schools had seven of its requests denied for roof repairs and other projects — the most rejected among applicants as of early June — because inspectors found the damage was unrelated to the storms.

The most dramatic rejection trend was for individuals: Of the 13,714 people who  were referred for help by FEMA under its “Individuals and Households Program,” nearly three-fourths were denied.

State and FEMA officials say the denials don’t necessarily mean FEMA was acting carelessly or callously. The agency encourages disaster victims and other groups to apply for funds even when it’s likely their requests will be rejected or scaled back because damage to their properties or belongings is mostly covered by private insurance.

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Oklahoma Tornado Project
9:30 am
Tue July 15, 2014

Auditing The Storm: Disaster 4117 - Moore Public Schools

A new Briarwood Elementary School in Moore is near completion, paid for by insurance and federal public assistance money.
Lindsay Whelchel Oklahoma Watch

The smell of freshly cut lumber rides a south breeze to the front of the steel and concrete skeleton rising out of red clay. Construction workers and machines move about.

The new incarnation of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died in the May 20, 2013, tornado, is set to open this fall. And in front on this day stand Mikki Davis and family members, there for a rally calling for the state to help pay for safe rooms in schools. Davis holds a picture of her 8-year-old son Kyle, one of the seven children who died.

“I didn’t want him taken (from life),” Davis said. “I expected to come here (on May 20) and find him looking for mama to pick him up.”

Returning to the site brings back memories and emotions. But knowing that the new school will have a safe room gives Davis some consolation.

“If my son’s life was taken so that others in the future could be saved in the future, then that makes me proud to be his mom,” Davis said.

The inclusion of safe rooms in the three schools damaged or destroyed in last year’s tornadoes is part of the FEMA disaster aid enabling the district to  rebuild. The assistance covers three-fourths of the cost of what is not paid for by insurance and donations.

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Oklahoma Watch
6:31 am
Tue July 15, 2014

After 32 Years And A Wrongful Conviction, New Suspect In Rape Is Charged

Neeta Lind Flickr Creative Commons

The Cleveland County District Attorney's Office has charged a suspect in a 32-year-old case of rape for which another man was wrongfully convicted and spent more than 13 years in prison.

The suspect, Gilbert Duane Harris, 58, of Biloxi, Miss., was identified after an Oklahoma Watch inquiry last year caused the Norman Police Department to request a national DNA database check related to the 1982 rape of a University of Oklahoma student. That check, sought by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, matched Harris' DNA with DNA evidence from the rape, but authorities say it took months to verify and follow up.

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