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Roundup of Oklahoma editorials

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Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

The Journal Record, March 3, 2014

Still no outrage over school construction

A story was published on the front page of The Journal Record's Feb. 21 issues with the headline: "Deathtrap - Moore tornado debris reveals construction flaws, code violations."

The story appeared after months of research. But it started with a simple conversation at the state Capitol. Chris Ramseyer, a University of Oklahoma engineering professor, was part of a team asked to explain what might have been done in the design and construction of the Briarwood and Plaza Towers schools that would have prevented the injuries and deaths that occurred May 20 when the buildings were destroyed by an EF5 tornado.

Ramseyer was at the Capitol Sept. 24 to tell legislators conducting an interim study about his early findings, which showed that Briarwood was not built right. He was personally outraged at what he saw: construction so shoddy there was little chance the building would protect its occupants.

The roomful of legislators sat glassy-eyed as Ramseyer presented the startling news. There was no moral outrage. No indignation that a firm would put young children in a substandard building on the bull's-eye of Tornado Alley. Not a fist was pounded.

It would be reasonable to expect that school district superintendents and legislators throughout the state scrambled to inspect their buildings. It would not be a surprise to see State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, embroiled in a heated re-election campaign, draw attention to her office with demands that all Oklahoma schools be immediately examined for similar flaws. It surely would be predictable that Moore Public Schools Superintendent Robert Romines would waste no time in inspecting Westmoore High School, which was designed and built by the same firm responsible for Briarwood. That defunct company, RGDC, left a trail of flawed buildings.

Tornado season in Oklahoma starts in about three weeks. Afternoon twisters will come barreling through the state, unremorseful as they destroy whatever might be in their paths. Children will be in school until late May, when tornado season begins to wind down.

Parents should demand inspection of their children's schools. So should superintendents, and so should legislators.

Oklahomans cannot be expected to put their children in a box with only the hope that the walls were built right. The pupils' safety is entrusted to the elected officials who are responsible for the public buildings built with taxpayer money.

Where are they?


The Oklahoman, Feb. 28, 2014

One way or another, Oklahoma public school patrons will pay more for student safety

One city at a time, one school district at a time, buildings that house students will include provisions for a shelter. But it would take decades before all school buildings in the state have safe rooms or tornado shelters.

Oklahoma City will now require shelters for new schools, with a city council vote Tuesday affecting 24 school districts. That so many districts have a footprint in one city is another reminder of the surfeit of districts in this state. But that's a topic for another time.

The council's vote to require shelters in new schools will affect only schools constructed within the city limits. Thus, a Putnam City district school may or may not be subject to the requirement. And no provision is being made to retrofit existing schools with shelters.

Two competing plans for retrofitting are extant. One would ask voters to approve a statewide bond issue to fund shelters. The other would allow individual districts to increase bonding capacities beyond statutory limits, to fund shelters or safe rooms. The latter is the better approach, but either plan would result in years of unprotected schools because it would take years to build the shelters.

Some districts already have a policy of equipping new schools with shelters, but few have a plan for retrofitting older schools. Rare is the city in which building codes require new schools to include shelters.

The council's vote reflects a new reality among politicians that school safety is a paramount issue in the wake of last May's tornado in Moore that took the lives of seven grade school students.

The 2014 governor's race already carries a strong connection to the two competing shelter plans noted above.

What happened in a few moments in Moore vivified a dormant issue. One way or another, patrons will pay more for school structures to prevent a recurrence of those deadly moments.


Tulsa World, March 4, 2014

Proposals to reshape state judiciary fade away in committee

Proposals to reshape the state's court system faded away in legislative committee Thursday, the first deadline of the legislative session.

Former Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon had proposed 12-year term limits for some judges, a mandatory retirement age of 75 and revisions to the way judicial nominees are selected for the governor's consideration. The measures weren't taken up by the deadline, meaning they can't be considered this year in their current form.

The bills came in response to state Supreme Court declarations that important parts of Shannon's 2013 legislative program — lawsuit reform, an income tax cut and a fund to pay for state Capitol repairs — were unconstitutional, and were interpreted by many as an effort to curb the independence of the judiciary.

(Lawsuit reform was subsequently revised and repassed in a special legislative session. New plans for the tax cut and the Capitol fund are in the works.)

An adviser to Shannon said the demise of the judicial bills was the result of a change in House leadership. He said Shannon wanted the changes, but they weren't the priority of Speaker Jeff Hickman, who rose to the top spot in the House when Shannon refocused his efforts on a U.S. Senate race.

We don't know why the measures died in committee, but it's for the best.

Changes to our form of government on this scale shouldn't be made in hasty reaction to events. It's a variation of the old theme that hard cases make bad law. Reshaping our form of government calls for deliberation and consensus — both of which were missing from the effort.

Nearly 3,000 other bills and resolutions also withered last week with the deadline.

It's an annual rite of passage for the Legislature, the ending for the vast majority of proposals, and is almost as important as one of the next stages, when bad ideas passed by the House move to the Senate to be forgotten and bad ideas passed by the Senate move to the House to be ignored.

There's a lot of dross in the legislative process, but typically it all settles gently into obscurity. Still, it should be remembered that nothing is truly dead in the Legislature until the final gavel falls.

There are always ways to wire around rules and deadlines, and, of course, any idea that doesn't make it through the process this year, can be revived next.

So opponents to judicial changes or any other proposal that didn't make last week's deadline shouldn't celebrate their victory just yet: The Legislature is still in session — for good or ill.

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