INVESTIGATION: OKC school builds without saferoom plan

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma City Public Schools continues to build new construction projects without a plan for a tornado safe room.

For several years, the Oklahoma City Public School District has been building free-standing elementary gymnasiums.

The gyms are paid for as part of a 2007 bond issue.

NewsChannel 4 uncovered, despite the district's experience with safe rooms, they didn't build any of the projects with a saferoom.

In fact, we now know administrators didn't even look into the possibility of building those facilities as tornado safe rooms.

After our report aired, the district changed course.

They now tell us that they hope to complete the unfinished gymnasium projects *with* an option for a safe room.

However, it appears the district's very next construction project is moving forward without a saferoom.

Nichols Hills Elementary

The Nichols Hills Elementary School gym project has been delayed over and over again.

According to school parents, they first started saving to build their own gym about ten years ago.

Then, in 2007, when the district passed a bond issue to pay for a new gym, parents decided they would use their funds to amend the facility the district was going to build.

That was six years ago, and there's still no gymnasium on the property.

The district finally started working on building the gym about 18 months ago.

The architect has drawn up the plans, but the construction bid still hasn't been awarded.

While the delays are a disappointment for Nichols Hills families, they also present an opportunity to build the new gym with a saferoom.

All over the state, when schools plan for new construction, districts are incorporating a saferoom.

In Luther Public School District, the district built saferoom classrooms in their new high school.

In Oakdale School District, they built a saferoom gymnasium for students, staff and parents.

Recently school board members for Oklahoma City Public Schools discussed the saferoom option for the district's new construction.

"I don't think we can miss this opportunity to do saferooms." said board member Ron Millican.

"We're all cognizant to the fact that we have an opportunity with this construction, perhaps even if it's delayed a bit, to do something." said board Chairperson, Lynne Hardin.

OCPS Chief Operations Officer, Jim Burkey told the board safe rooms are a priority for the district.

"We are able to take a step back and say we want to look at the safe shelter option on this." Burkey said. "I think it is very much the priority of the Oklahoma City Public Schools."

However the very next gym on the list, Nichols Hills Elementary, has no safe room in the plan.

The district sent over this statement confirming they're building Nichols Hills Elementary without a saferoom:

  “The District certainly understands the concerns of many regarding the availability of safe rooms in schools after the storm tragedies in May. We are considering near-term and long-term plans for safe room construction for school board consideration."

“However, we did not want to further delay construction of facilities at Nichols Hills Elementary and the bids for that work are due on Tuesday (September 24).  The Nichols Hills community came together in recent months to agree on construction priorities and we proceeded with the bid proposal.  This certainly does not preclude a safe room at Nichols Hills at a later date, which also will be the case for all of the district schools.”

The Nichols Hills Elementary gymnasium project was awarded to the architecture firm, Hornbeek and Blatt.

Hornbeek and Blatt is very familiar with safe room design, "In almost every project now we get a discussion now about safe rooms." said architect Tony Blatt.

In fact, Hornbeek and Blatt recently finished a safe room project in Tuttle.

Tuttle City Hall is a FEMA-funded, FEMA-rated 1000-person community safe room, designed by Hornbeek and Blatt.

"We work with structural engineers and we've asked the question. 'Could we do a gymnasium safe room?' We've had engineers that say, 'Yes. You can do a gymnasium safe room.'" Blatt said.

The architect is willing to draw up a safe room design for Nichols Hills Elementary.

Blatt estimated he could turn-around the design in 60 to 90 days.

OCPS School Board member, Justin Ellis, tells us that delay is an important issue for Nichols Hills parents because they've waiting ten years for their gym.

The funding is also a factor.

Most experts estimate safe room construction is a 15 percent upgrade.

"The money. So we have to find the money. I don't know how long that will take. But it is something that we are already in the process of looking at." said Ellis. "I think the school will get a gym. I think the school will get a safe room. My goal is to speed up the process and have them be the same thing. The safety of our kids comes first. Absolutely."

Right now, the project is moving ahead as scheduled; no safe room.

The tornado plan for Nichols Hills Elementary students and staff is for some of the students to shelter in an underground basement area, while others shelter in a non-FEMA-rated bathroom.

The construction contract bids are scheduled to be opened and awarded Tuesday morning, September 24th.

Oklahoma City Public Schools also offered the following information about Nichols Hills Elementary:

  • The Nichols Hills construction planning began in October 2010 with the selection of an architect and experienced a 17 month delay to address concerns of patrons and neighbors. Even with the bids to be received on Tuesday, construction is not expected to be completed until December 2014. The district did not want to delay the construction further while a policy for safe rooms is being developed.
  • There is not currently an identified funding source for additional costs for a safe room.
  • In future gym projects (at all schools without a safe room), a safe room will be bid as an alternate.
  • There are 46 elementary school gyms to be constructed with 17 underway, one (Nichols Hills) out to bid and 6 are in design phase. Design has not yet begun on the remaining 19 school gyms.
  • The district currently plans to receive cost estimates for safe room construction (as part of new overall construction of gyms on a school campus) by requesting an alternate bid for fortifying spaces to meet FEMA standards.
  • 5 schools (from a total of 74 campuses) currently have a FEMA approved safe rooms.
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