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WEDNESDAY, MARCH 28, 2007
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Aid for school disasters
Oden seeking trust fund to help pay for catastrophes after tornado hit Enterprise

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — The emotion-charged aftermath of a tornado that destroyed schools in Enterprise point to the need for an organized response from the state in such disasters, an area lawmaker said.

Rep. Jeremy Oden, R-Eva, wants the state to establish an ongoing trust fund to help pay for school catastrophes and set up procedures to evaluate how to respond when tornadoes, hurricanes or other disasters strike schools.

Oden, who serves on the House Education Appropriations Committee, said he got the idea after discussions began in the Legislature on how to respond to the Enterprise tornado damage.

Enterprise asked the state for $72 million to rebuild Enterprise High School and rebuild or repair Hillcrest Elementary School. The schools received damage and eight high school students died in a March 1 tornado that struck the town.

Oden said HB 370, which he introduced last week, would help the state respond more rapidly and objectively. The bill establishes guidelines on how schools can apply for assistance and calls for oversight by the Alabama Department of Education and the state Finance Department risk management division. The bill awaits action in the Education Appropriations Committee.

An initial $1 million appropriation from the Education Proration Prevention Account would set up the trust fund. In future years, an annual 5 percent surcharge on insurance premiums paid by local boards of education would continue the fund.

While the House quickly passed a bill giving the community $72 million, questions arose in a Senate committee meeting on the bill and drew dozens of citizens from the Southeast Alabama town to the State House last week for a legislative committee meeting. The committee approved a bill giving $32 million to Enterprise, which would pay most of the cost to rebuild, but not enlarge the schools as Enterprise originally proposed.

"We are lucky this year that we have carry-over education funds to help Enterprise, but we should also plan for future years," Oden said.

Oden wants to establish a Public School Catastrophe Trust Fund to help pay for disaster needs in the future. His HB 370 also sets up a Public School Catastrophe Trust Fund Council to help oversee the fund

Sen. Jimmy Holley, D-Elba, also said the state needs an ongoing, logical way to respond to school disasters, even when the Legislature is not in session.

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