As far as Shawn Tennyson could tell, he was all out of options. Bids for the domed practice facility/storm shelter he’d helped spearhead for the local school had come in over budget. He didn’t want to sacrifice the original plans, but the school couldn’t afford them, either. It was, as far as he could tell, the end of the road.
“I started praying hard,” recalled Tennyson, superintendent at Waukomis Public Schools in Oklahoma. “I said, ‘God, what am I supposed to do?’ And then out of the blue, Stephen Mitchell of Lambert (Construction) comes into my office. I didn’t call this guy, didn’t do anything.”
That was a turning point for a project that had already been three years in the making. On May 20, 2013, an EF5 tornado tore through Central Oklahoma and ravaged Moore, which is 10 miles south of Oklahoma City. Twenty-four people died, including seven children when their school’s walls collapsed on them. Waukomis is south of Enid, almost 90 miles northeast of Moore and well away from those storms. Still, it shook locals to their core.
“That was the main idea why we built a dome versus a square building,” Tennyson said. “We saw the tragedy that happened down south (in Moore), and we wanted to be able to keep that from happening to our students.”
Tennyson was still a principal in 2013 when superintendent Dale Bledsoe began looking into options for a school shelter. A conversation with Monolithic Dome representatives led Bledsoe to the idea of building a dome. Tennyson took the reins on the project when he succeeded Bledsoe as superintendent in 2014.
“We wanted safety for our students,” Tennyson said. “We wanted to be able to fit everybody in during severe weather.”
That can include the community, if necessary. The dome spans 9,500 square feet and is designated for an occupancy of 227 people, but more could squeeze in if weather threatens.
“If we had to, we could fit the whole town of Waukomis into it for a storm,” Tennyson told a local newspaper during construction. “We were thinking of the community and not just the schools.”
Patrons approved a bond issue to cover the $1.5 million to build and equip the facility, and the school also won a $100,000 Shelter Oklahoma Schools grant from the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. The project was put out to bid twice — Bledsoe’s departure aborted the first round — and the second round drew eight bids.
“The lowest of the bids was $2.2 million, so we put the brakes on,” Tennyson recalled.”Just opening envelopes, we were a million dollars over budget. We were like, ‘Holy moly, what are we going to do?’”
Enter Stephen Mitchell, vice president of Lambert Construction Company. A district parent initially steered the school toward the Stillwater-based company, whose work includes the domed facility at Pawnee Public Schools. It was brought on board as construction manager and helped the school structure another round of bids. That drew 27 bids and came within budget. Work got under way in April 2017, and the facility opened its doors in early 2018.
Local contractors were among those bids, many with children in Waukomis schools. “It’s nice to get those bids in because you try to help them,” Tennyson said, “and they try to keep our costs low because it’s helping our school and helping our kids.”
The facility is definitely built to stand up the Oklahoma’s infamous storms. Special deadbolts can be pushed deep into the concrete walls to secure the heavy-duty doors. Thick walls form a box around the exterior doors, potentially shielding the main interior. But the atmosphere is far from oppressive. Classes stream in and out all day for PE. Coaches are moving into an office space on one side \, where a weight room is already in use. Locker rooms and a football field house are being finished out on the other side. Batting cages and pitching lanes are in the works.
“It’s the same size as what we originally wanted, and it has the same stuff we originally wanted,” Tennyson said. “The only thing we’re missing in the dome right now that was in the original plan are four more basketball goals, which we can add at any time.”
For Tennyson and the community, the new facility represents not only peace of mind, but the power of perseverance as well.
“The school board was very adamant about keeping it like we asked for, said that’s what we talked about, and they didn’t back down,” Tennyson said. “That was a blessing on my part because I didn’t want to back down, either.”