TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners have asked that the School Board immediately halt plans to raise any more cell towers at schools until concerns about community involvement are resolved.
The letter arrived Tuesday, shortly before school leaders went into a public meeting packed with orange-clad parents and students protesting the towers, and another large group supporting the towers and the money they raise for schools.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who signed the letter, said the county wants to "ensure that we're doing everything we can to protect our children and to ensure that the public has the opportunity to participate in the process."
School Board chairwoman Carol Kurdell noted that district officials needed time to review the letter from the commissioners, which expressed concern that people were not always given the chance to have a say on the possible placement of cell towers.
Kurdell said the district would make sure it had the facts straight and get back to the county by the end of the week.
But it is clear that the community divide over whether to raise cell towers at school campuses will not go away so quickly. School Board members heard an earful on the topic at Tuesday's meeting, where 20 people railed against the cell towers and 12 in support of them.
The sudden outburst comes after more than a dozen Hillsborough schools added cell towers to their campuses in recent years with relatively little attention. Principals were glad to have the extra cash, which can range into the thousands.
That calm ended this year when community protests over a proposal for a cell tower at south Tampa's Coleman Middle prompted the principal to table the idea. Since then, parents have started organizing anti-cell tower campaigns in other communities too.
"Schools and communities are being torn apart over this controversial issue," Cynthia Shellabarger, a mother from South Tampa, told the School Board. "I wouldn't touch this issue with a 100-foot cell tower pole."
She said some parents have threatened to stop fundraising for schools. Others talk about boycotting the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test period. Some are scared to speak out because they fear principals could intimidate their children, she added.
Many opponents brought their children to the meeting, dressed in bright orange shirts that read "No Towers" and "No Towers at Schools." They raised concerns about the health effects of exposing students to the towers, which government regulators have deemed safe. Others worried about the effect on neighborhood property values.
Many came from Pride Elementary in New Tampa, where parents complain they weren't given enough notice before a cell tower went up. Joining them in the campaign against cell phone towers were parents representing schools from Valrico to South Tampa.
And right behind the tower opponents came the residents who want them to go up.
"I encourage you to keep this up," said Pearl Chiarenza, a parent at Cimino Elementary in Valrico, noting that the PTA is struggling to raise $14,000 to pay for recess and school enhancements.
The money available to schools that lease space to cell phone towers "goes a long way for autism. That goes a long way for other education programs that our children need," she said.
Chiarenza agreed that principals should hold meetings in advance with the community, noting that one at Cimino drew just a handful of parents.
After everyone spoke, Kurdell asked superintendent MaryEllen Elia to find answers for the concerns raised and get back to the community, as well as the School Board.
And they also will need to get back to the County Commission, which in light of recent protests decided last week to take another look at a land use change that made it easier to raise cell phone towers at schools without public hearings.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.