Marie Valenti was among other principals in a recent school district workshop where the speaker recommended they use electronic tablets when evaluating teachers.
"The principal next to me told me, 'I don't have the funding,' " said Valenti, of Chiaramonte Elementary School in South Tampa.
"I said, 'I do. I have a cell tower.' "
As educators navigate a microchip world on chalkboard budgets, some are turning to a by-product of technology — money made available by cellular tower leases.
According to the Hillsborough County School District, the leases have brought $540,135 to 15 public school properties in the last six years. From New Tampa's Benito Middle School to Wimauma Elementary School, they have netted anywhere from $10,000 to $75,000 since 2004.
Some principals, citing the need for funds, have emerged as proponents for the towers, despite opposition from parents who fear they could pose health and safety hazards.
At Coleman Middle School in South Tampa, opponents successfully defeated a tower in 2009, convincing that school's principal that the community could raise whatever money the school needed for enhancements.
Dale Mabry Elementary parent Lisa Williams, who is active in the anticell tower movement, considers the arrangement unconscionable. "I understand finances right now are tight everywhere, and I see that some schools are in desperate need of money regardless of how they get it," she said. "But where do you draw the line between safety and money?"
To the argument that not all communities can so easily raise funds for their schools, she asks, "why do the underprivileged children get to be the lab rats?"
But, while Williams' network is vocal and passionate, principals say the opposition is muted in many communities.
"I have had very little comment either way," said Deborah Moltisanti, principal of Mintz Elementary in Brandon.
Mintz, in a middle-income neighborhood, has more than half its students listed as economically disadvantaged, but does not qualify for low-income funding under the federal Title 1 program.
So money is, indeed, a factor.
About $25,000 came to Mintz this year from Verizon and Clearwire, according to school district records. With it, Moltisanti invested in technology. Every classroom now has an LCD projector, she said, and a color scanner that enables teachers to make displays from books, documents, even manipulative math problems. Before, teachers had to share limited equipment.
"It's basically the 21st century overhead projector," she said. "Once you begin to use it, you don't want to share it any more," she said.
Moltisanti is trying to be conservative about her expectations for the coming year, believing the 2010 revenues were unusually high. With whatever comes in, she would love to buy student furniture for the cafeteria.
At Chiaramonte, Valenti has used the money for everything from high-tech purchases such as interactive white boards to Weekly Reader newspapers.
There has been money left over for incentive prizes for children with good performance and parents who showed up at teacher conferences.
While Williams likens cell towers to asbestos and Chinese drywall, Valenti said she is not convinced that they pose a hazard. "It has not been proven," she said.
She does know that a lot of things at her school were in short supply before, even closet space. "I was able to purchase a storage shed," she said. "It cost $4,800." Without the cell tower money, she said, "we would never have been able to spend that kind of money."
Staff writer Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4602.