Oklahoma Tornado Project
7:30 am
Mon March 10, 2014

Oklahoma House To Hear School Shelter Proposal

Last month, a proposal to fund school shelter construction using property taxes passed a State House committee. It was the only shelter bill the House of Representatives heard, and it’s supported by Governor Mary Fallin. 

Credit gtquast / Flickr

This week, lawmakers may vote to put it on the November ballot. 

The measure is known as House Joint Resolution 1092, and it isn’t the easiest bill to explain. Even its author, State Representative Mark McBride recognizes that.

McBride represents District 53, which includes Moore and Norman, two areas that tornadoes have historically battered.

He says he wrote this bill because he wanted to take the next step in keeping kids safe. It would allow a school district to exceed its maximum bonding capacity one time to pay for shelters or other safety measures. And how would those bonds be paid back?

“Everybody says we're raising property taxes with ad valorem tax, that's not... you would have to choose,” McBride said. “Each individual district would have to choose to do that and that would be how it would be paid back.”

But regardless of whether the increase in property taxes would be imposed by state lawmakers, or voters would impose it on themselves, many disagree whether this is the best approach.

Mike Oakley is the president of the Oklahoma Farmers and Ranchers Association. He owns 80 acres in Muskogee, so it’s likely this bill would raise his taxes significantly if his school district used it. He’s not concerned though. 

“I have 17 grandkids, and if they are in school and a tornado hits, I would want them safe. So a couple hundred dollars a year in property taxes, it wouldn't kill me,” Oakley said.

But Mark Nestlen of Take Shelter Oklahoma, a school shelter advocacy group, says raising property taxes isn’t the way to go.

“That's going to cause economic damage in communities, whether rural or urban or suburban, it's going to cause damage,” Nestlen said.

Exactly how much this bill would raise taxes is unclear.

Nestlen claims the plan could add $300 a year in property taxes on a $100,000 home, but McBride says that according to his math it would only add $17 a year.  Regardless of numbers, though, Nestlen says there’s a bigger issue with this bill.

“If there were any storm shelters built, it doesn't guarantee they actually protect the kids because there is nothing that would provide that these shelters meet FEMA regulations,” Nestlen said.

That also worries Mike Oakley, the rancher.

“If they don't have a standard to go by, you could wipe out a school system if they didn't build it up to code. They have to look at that,” he said.

Representative McBride says shelters will be built to comply with a general building code, and he argues that should be enough. His bill doesn’t actually require that the money be used specifically for shelters, but he says that’s intentional.

“There are schools in the state that there's not tornadoes. They may not want a tornado shelter, they may want something with bullet proof glass, sheet rock, just for an intruder, shooter incident, something like that, security systems,” McBride said.

“That's kind of what this bill is designed for, either or. You can use it for security or safety.”

Though some school shelter advocates like Take Shelter Oklahoma aren’t wild about this bill, it’s their only option for the time being. Other measures like Representative Joe Dorman’s proposal for a 500-million-dollar bond using the state’s corporate franchise tax are currently stalled in the legislature.

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