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THURSDAY, APRIL 12, 2007
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Legislative group to plan school-disaster response

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

MONTGOMERY — State lawmakers want a plan to deal quickly with the aftermath of school disasters like the Enterprise tornado.

The House Education Appropriations Committee formed a joint House/Senate committee Tuesday to formulate such a plan.

The idea originated with a bill by Rep. Jeremy Oden, R-Eva, to set up a public-school catastrophe fund and an accompanying oversight council. The council would also establish guidelines to help schools and the state respond to disasters.

"My biggest concern is that we should have a system where schools do not have to come to the Legislature when there is an emergency," Oden said. "If the system is in place, they will not have to wait for the Legislature to meet."

Senate members of the eight-member ad hoc committee have not been appointed. The House's members are Reps. Oden, Robert J. Bentley, R-Tuscaloosa; Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville; and Terry Spicer, D-Elba. Spicer's district includes Enterprise, which lost two schools and eight students in a March 1 tornado.

Last month, the Legislature debated catastrophe funding for Enterprise.

As he was drafting disaster-aid legislation for Enterprise's schools, Spicer said, he realized Alabama lacked a master
plan for responding to such disasters.

"There was no model to go by," Spicer said. "A model would have helped."

Oden said that is, in part, the point of his bill.

McLaughlin said disaster planning would help avoid the delay and concerns about how disaster funding would be spent that arose with Enterprise.

McLaughlin said he hopes the joint committee will look at insurance coverage for schools, ways to determine adequate coverage and whether the state needs to self-insure or otherwise be involved in oversight.

Oden said he wants the state to set aside money in the state's rainy-day education fund for a trust to help provide rapid financial response to future school catastrophes.

He also wants a Public School Catastrophe Trust Fund Council to set up guidelines and oversee the catastrophe fund.

Oden's bill would have local school systems pay a 5 percent surcharge on their insurance policies to help provide continuing revenue for the catastrophe fund.

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