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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with ...



Bill_cook_2 ... Bill Cook, a leader with Parents Against Cell Towers at Schools  (PACTS). Cook, a South Tampa parent and activist, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the group's motivations and future plans.

Where did this group come from?

It's the joining of two organizations. One was the group of parents who mobilized to oppose the tower at Coleman, who were then contacted and grouped together with the parents at Pride Elementary who already had a tower put on their campus without their knowledge and without their consent and without their input. And we sort of merged our organizations together, and we are now bringing in parents from more schools as well. ... So it's really a countywide organization now of parents who are concerned about towers on school property.

Is it mostly Hillsborough? Or are you expanding beyond Hillsborough also?

Right now we're in pretty much only Hillsborough, though we've had parents reaching out to us from Pasco County and Pinellas County.

What is your big concern about cell phone towers?

There's really three issues. One is that the process that is being followed is one that is antithetical to appropriate use of school property and appropriate land use designation. What we mean by that is... whether or not a tower will or will not be put up on a school property in a residential area has been delegated all the way down to a principal. And the principal is in fact an employee of the land owner. In no other situation does an employee of the land owner get to met the determination about appropriate use.

The second problem is that the county itself, the School Board, does not have someone who is an expert in cell tower safety and cell tower issues. They use a company that has a contract to financially benefit from the towers being put forth as their so-called expert, when in fact these people have an immediate financial interest in the towers going up. So rather than getting a balanced review of the issues and concerns, you get a sales pitch. ... And the information is biased and at times either incorrect or significantly misleading. And it's misleading about a significant issue, or two significant issues.

One is property values. They will tell you that cell towers will not affect property values. But we know that the largest organization of independent appraisers in the United States has come out and said that in fact towers do affect property values. And I think anyone with common sense would think a 130-foot tower 100 feet from your property line might have a negative impact on your ability to sell your home, or the asking price you're able to get.

The other critical issue is one that is becoming more and more so, one of health and safety. The fundamental component is that for many years the FCC and all the regulatory agencies that look into cell towers were looking at only one type of radiation. And that's called thermal, or ionizing, radiation. ... No one has done any significant, long term ... study of the long-term impact of long-term exposure to low level RF radiation.

What has happened though are a couple of important things. Dr. George Carlo, who was hired by the wireless industry ... has now come out and said that he believes there is potential for significant health concerns, and that children are those who are potentially most vulnerable and susceptible.

Why do you think it is that schools would not take these kinds of issues into consideration when they're all about children?

It's perplexing to us. Because the amount of money involved is a paltry amount of money. We're not saying schools don't need money. But in reality, when you look at the real numbers, the way it breaks down is this. The school budget is $1.7 billion. ... The amount of money raised by towers this past year was $145,000. That's 0.0082 of a percent of the budget. ... To put it another way, it's 75 cents a student in Hillsborough County. ...

I think the other thing is the wireless industry has done a phenomenally good job of putting information out there to school districts that are desperate for money that this is an easy way to raise money with no potential side effects. And they cite that the FCC has said the side effects of towers are safe. But the growing body of scientific voice is saying that the FCC standards ... are 1,000 times too weak. ...

So your basic issues are fairly well laid out now. Why do you feel like you have to fight so much?

We just came from a meeting with the Board of County Commissioners for Hillsborough County over a change to the land use bill that was put by the people of Collier Enterprises to make it easier to place cell towers on school property. No one knew that this was going on. This went on last summer. They were small noticed meetings. When we found out about it, people went to speak. The county commissioners said, Wait a minute. We didn't know about this. We are very concerned.

Going back to your question, we don't know why the School Board is so resistant. I think sometimes when you take a position and you are invested in it, either politically or emotionally, it's difficult to back away from it sometimes. They've already put towers at several schools. What are they going to tell those principals? They've entered into a contract, I think perhaps unknowingly, and without adequate vetting of the issues. I think that's where they're from. So we're a little perplexed.

It really isn't that much money. Yes, it is some money, and some money is helpful. But the risk vs. the benefit is so, so significant. And we encounter School Board members who will say things that are blatantly misleading to the press. I was present when one of the School Board members said to Kathy Fountain ... when Kathy Fountain said, 'Well, what about Pride Elementary? I hear there's a lot of objection from parents at Pride.' And Candy Olson said, No, it's just one mother who is upset.

Well, I know for a fact that they presented the School Board with 300 names on petitions. That's more than one. ... In fact, taken as a whole, I think there's a broad growing number of parents who are concerned about this for a number of reasons. ... And there are many people who don't have children in the schools who are still impacted by these towers.

So what is it you want them to do?

We are seeking a moratorium on the placement of towers on school property until we can have an open and fair public hearing on the issues, and then let the community decide. In addition ... we're opposed to towers on school property. Certainly we need them. We're not saying we shouldn't have them. But they don't belong on locations where children are directly impacted and exposed all day long.

Do you think there's anything that other parents need to be doing to educate themselves to decide if they want to join you or the group on the other side, if there is one?

Here's the challenge. When you go on the Internet, you will see hundreds and thousands of hits on this issue. Some of it is just junk science. It's bogus science. And it takes a lot of filtering. But we've done hundreds of hours on this, and I've personally spoken to some of the noted scientists involved. ... I encourage people not to take the information that is provided by the school and the School Board at face value. They need to bring a certain level of skepticism to that information.

People can disagree as to whether you should have towers on school property. But they need to do that with the full assessment of the information.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:14am]


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