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Could Okla. lottery proceeds build shelters in schools?

OKLAHOMA CITY — From the moment people started pressing to build saferooms in Oklahoma schools we’ve heard the same question again and again.

Viewers asked, and NewsChannel 4 now has an answer to the question: Why aren’t we using lottery money to build saferooms in our schools?

According to a statewide survey, about half a million school children are unprotected from large tornadoes in their school.

“If you had had a tornado come directly through your classroom you would want people to find a way, no matter what.” said Moore school teacher Sheri Bittle.

Bittle taught first grade at Briarwood Elementary last school year.

She survived the May 20th tornado that destroyed her school building; none of her students were injured despite having no where to go when the storm hit.

“I just huddled my class in the corner of the room and prayed over them. God protected us. We lived through it, and not every teacher got to say that.” Bittle said. “It would be nice to have a safe place to know that it wasn’t just by the grace of God that you got to live that day.”

Brad Gray’s daughter, Skyler, was also at Briarwood May 20th.

Gray huddled in an elementary bathroom because there was no safe place to go.

“I know it takes money, and it takes a lot of money.” said Brad Gray. “I’m not putting my girls through that again. There will be no question. I’ll go get them (from school) or they won’t make it (to school that day).”

The Oklahoma lottery generates about $30 million a year for common education, K-12.

So, why aren’t we using those millions to protect Oklahoma kids in their schools?

“When I came into office I found that the lottery really cannot be considered to be extra money.” said State Superintendent of Schools, Janet Baressi.

Baressi tells NewsChannel 4 even though the lottery was initially passed by voters to fund “extras” in schools, from the very beginning, those dollars went straight into the general funding formula for Oklahoma school districts.

“It’s spent, and it’s been spent since 2005.” said State Senator Clark Jolley.

Jolley says, upon the passage of the lottery, the state legislature almost immediately voted to use those millions to fund teacher pay raises and all-day kindergarten.

“The way we’re currently spending lottery money we’d have to come up with a way to replace it because it is being spent on higher teacher salaries and on all-day kindergarten.” Jolley said.

Oklahoma faces a $170 million shortfall for this fiscal year, and so replacing lottery money with state funding is not likely to happen.

However, the Executive Director at the Oklahoma Lottery Commission, Rollo Redburn, has another plan to generate millions for school saferooms.

Right now, the Lottery Commission returns a required 35 percent of lottery profits to the state for education.

Redburn believes if his agency could use five percent of that education money for lottery jackpots, that the commission could raise more dollars for education.

According to Redburn, states with higher jackpots have higher revenues.

He believes the saferooms solution is to reduce the required percentage to 30 percent, increase the lottery jackpot, increase lottery revenue, and in turn, increase the amount of money that is funneled into education.

Some estimates show Redburn and the Lottery Commission could raise an extra 40 million for education over the next five years.

“I know for a fact if we didn’t have this profit requirement we would be having better sales, and we would be making more actual dollars for education.” Redburn said.

Right now, Oklahomans are spending big bucks on gambling, but they’re spending it at Indian casinos, not on scratch-off tickets.

“I’m kind of suspicious of plans like that.” said Supt. Baressi, who admits she’s “not a big fan of the lottery.”

Republican State Senator Clark Jolley echoes that same perspective.

“To get done what the lottery commission is suggesting would require us to increase the amount of gambling in this state. Both from a fiscal and social conservative side I think those have a lot of problems getting through the legislature.” Jolley said.

Loosening lottery requirements will be a tough sell in the current state legislature.