Oklahoma Tornado Project: Public Confusion Over School Shelter Issue
For three months, people across the state gathered signatures for State Question 767, a proposal to allow the state franchise tax to pay for tornado shelters in schools. Supporters were 35-thousand signatures short when the 90-day time period for collecting those signatures ran out. As Kate Carlton reports, they’re now awaiting the outcome of a legal challenge, claiming the deck was stacked against them.
After Kristi Conatzer lost her daughter Emily in the tornado that hit Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School on May 20th, she got together with others to form “Take Shelter Oklahoma.” The group created a petition to get a funding option for school shelters on an upcoming ballot. But Conatzer was frustrated when Attorney General Scott Pruitt made changes to the “ballot title,” the proposal’s description voters see on election day.
“This is just disgusting that they’re acting this way,” Conatzer says. ”These people are toying with your kids’ lives.”
Governor Fallin has said she opposes the petition and believes school shelters should be funded locally rather than on a statewide level. Conatzer and other Take Shelter activists saw Pruitt’s rewording of the measure as the administration’s attempt to weight it down with legal language.
The group’s attorney, David Slane, says the new wording was confusing to many people.
“There was a town hall meeting where a lady later said, ‘I don’t even understand what’s going on with the ballot. I’m for shelters, but what does this mean?’ So it caused delay in people coming forward and volunteering because they didn’t understand,” Slane says.
Supporters of the effort also say Pruitt took two days longer than he was allowed to review the proposal. And while that may not seem like a lot, they claim that delay could have been a factor in them ultimately falling short of the number of signatures they needed.
Take Shelter Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against the Attorney General, and attorneys presented their cases in the State Supreme Court. After the hearing, school shelter advocate Mark Nestlen offered a compromise.
“The ballot title could easily be re-written by the Supreme Court in a very neutral and objective manner,” Nestlen says. “While we don’t think there’s anything wrong with our ballot title, that simply solves the problem, alleviates any problem of anyone claiming there was politics or partisanship.”
According to state law, the group had 90 days to collect the required 155-thousand signatures, but there was confusion over exactly when that window began and ended. Nestlen says a Supreme Court re-write would settle that debate for now by resetting the clock and starting over the signature-gathering process from scratch. The Attorney General’s office has declined to comment on the case. And while it opposes the measure, the Fallin administration has not provided details of any alternate proposal to raise money for school shelters. That frustrates Kristi Conatzer, the grieving mother.
“There has been nothing at all. Nothing,” Conatzer says. ”Not word from them of a plan they’ve come up with that they might be able to work with us for.”
For attorney David Slane, this entire three-month process has been much more complicated than it should be.
“The initiative process is for the people’s petition,” Slane says. ”A people’s petition means you don’t need people like me. It needs to be so that regular people take it down and file it.”
It’s unclear whether the current signatures would still be valid if the Supreme Court rewrote the measure. And there’s no timeline on when the ruling will come.
A poll taken shortly after the tornado found more than three-quarters of Oklahomans supported the idea of building safe rooms in schools. Take Shelter Oklahoma says public opinion is on their side, and that they’ll be victorious in the end if only the Supreme Court gives them another chance.
Funding for The Oklahoma Tornado Project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.