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Mon March 3, 2014

A Battle Of Words: School Shelter Hearing Goes To State Supreme Court

When the school shelter advocacy group Take Shelter Oklahoma formed several months ago, its goal was simple: to obtain enough signatures to get a $500 million bond issue on the ballot and use that money to build safe rooms in schools to protect kids from tornadoes. 

Take Shelter Oklahoma spent Fall 2013 gathering signatures for its initiative petition and State Question 767. The group fell short by more than 30,000.
Credit Kurt Gwartney / KGOU

The group’s path has become a winding one, the most recent turn was at the State Supreme Court in a fight against Attorney General Scott Pruitt

Listen to the radio story.

Take Shelter Oklahoma’s co-founder Kathy Turner walked out of the State Supreme Court last week, confident that her group’s attorney David Slane did a solid job, especially, she said, in comparison to Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Neal Leader.

“I think we dealt with legal issues and answered hard questions and I think Attorney Leader was very argumentative and very defensive,” Turner said.

The legal issues she mentioned revolved around just 200 words. Those words, called a ballot title, are what voters see when they go to the polls.

Take Shelter Oklahoma argues the original ballot title it submitted was legally valid. The group says Attorney General Scott Pruitt had no legal grounds when he re-wrote it last September and that the revised version put confusion in the minds of voters.

Take Shelter’s attorney David Slane hopes the Supreme Court will look beyond the party lines that have developed in recent months.

“I think everything that's voted on is ultimately political, but I hope the court, and I think the court is going to get past that and really try to interpret the law in this stuff,” Slane said.

Danni Legg agrees. Her son died when the tornado struck Plaza Towers Elementary School last May.

“This should not be a political issue at all. It's about our children,” she said right after the hearing.

Legg doesn’t appreciate the fact that Pruitt chose to mention the state’s franchise tax four times in the ballot title, which she says that could easily distract and scare away voters.

While her proposal uses the state franchise tax, she feels Pruitt’s version focuses almost entirely on the funding mechanism rather than the purpose of the petition.

“It's the ability to save a child's life. And, hands down, what this is about is our children safe in schools,” Legg said.

But Assistant Attorney General Neal Leader insists the franchise tax is what matters most to voters. He argued in court that his job is to clearly explain the effect of this financial transaction.

It’s an uphill battle for Take Shelter Oklahoma because, as Justice James Edmondson noted, the Supreme Court has historically sided with the attorney general unless there was something blatantly against the law. But that doesn’t make Take Shelter’s attorney David Slane nervous.

“I’m not worried about that at all. I think this court will do what they think is fair and right,” Slane said.

A decision is expected in the next few months. If the Supreme Court does rule to rewrite the disputed ballot title or chooses to revert to the original language, Take Shelter Oklahoma could gain an additional 90 days to collect signatures on an initiative petition. The group fell short last time.

According to a recent poll by the Oklahoma Gazette and News 9, gathering the necessary 155,000 signatures may not be so difficult. Over 50% of Oklahomans say they support a publicly funded option for school shelters.

For Legg, this ballot title and initiative petition drive are too important to give up.

“We are just parents that have lost our children and we see a district that didn't do the best for them,” Legg said. “We've got to do our best to save and make sure our other children that survived that storm are safe.“

In the meantime, Legg and the rest of the parents who lost children on May 20 are working with state lawmakers to introduce a bill to fund shelters in a similar way in case the Supreme Court doesn’t rule in their favor.