VALRICO — School officials signed documents paving the way for a controversial cell phone tower at Cimino Elementary months before parents and community members were notified.
The decisions, made in May and June, have left little recourse for those concerned about the safety of such a tower on school grounds, or for those who just don't like the idea.
"I wasn't surprised," said Louise Bravo, a Cimino parent who opposes the tower. "I had a feeling this was decided before."
Principal Deborah Talley signed a nonbinding form, which the Hillsborough County School District calls "an acknowledgement of the site plan," with Collier Enterprises II on May 6, according to district records. The company brokers deals between schools and cell phone carriers looking to expand coverage.
Along with Talley's approval of a tower on school property, that document set the stage for Cathy Valdes, the district's chief facilities officer, to sign a lease with the group on June 18. Collier president Stacy Frank signed the document 12 days later.
Parents got wind of a Jan. 13 cell tower information meeting when notices were sent home with students. About 20 people, a mix of parents and teachers, attended the session.
Asked why parents weren't notified until January, school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe would only respond in writing.
Talley was not aware that she needed to have a community meeting until she received a Nov. 21 memo from a district administrator, Cobbe wrote in an e-mail.
That memo, Cobbe said, told principals who were contemplating putting up a cell tower to hold neighborhood meetings.
"She figured no one would pay attention to a community meeting notice during the holidays, so she scheduled the meeting for after winter break and notified parents and neighbors," Cobbe wrote.
Other county requirements for a land-use meeting were satisfied when a sign was posted in front of the school about the upcoming and eventually rescheduled special-use hearing, Cobbe added.
County documents show that sign was posted Oct. 8.
"That constitutes community notice," Cobbe wrote.
Cimino parent Ray Alzamora said that the special-use hearing notice didn't mean much to parents and residents, who had no idea a tower was coming to the school. The sign showed a date and time for the meeting, but mentioned nothing about the tower's location.
Since January, Talley has described the tower to parents as an "open for discussion situation," Alzamora said. Only in recent weeks has she said that a lease was already signed.
"We were never given the true story or the complete time line," Alzamora said. "This is designed to be unclear."
The decision to move forward with a cell tower was bad timing, School Board member Jennifer Faliero said.
"Mrs. Talley is stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Faliero, whose district includes Valrico. "We just came up with a formalized process to deal with this. She did have a meeting and she's trying to follow the process. It's her decision, and if Mrs. Talley wants a cell phone tower there, it's going to be there. And I'm going to support her."
Alzamora, Bravo and other concerned parents and neighbors have since rallied against the tower. They've circulated a petition, and showed up at School Board and county meetings to complain.
But most people affected by the tower still don't know it's going up, Bravo said.
"If you don't read the paper, you don't know that this is going on," she said. "We got about 40 people to show up at our meeting, but those were only the people we managed to deliver fliers to. They will know after it's installed."
Initial plans called for a 3,600-square-foot area to be devoted to the tower. Collier requested permission through the county planning office to construct a 160-foot monopole, similar to a flagpole, for up to four providers.
The public hearing scheduled next week on the issue has since been canceled, according to the county planning office. Collier withdrew its application after meeting administrative approval by lowering the tower height to 100 feet and addressing other requirements.
A school can make more than $11,000 annually per carrier, and towers can accommodate up to five carriers. The rent for the towers rises 3 to 4 percent each year.
Cimino parent Pearl Chiarenza, who is also the school's PTA president, said Talley made the right decision. Speaking as a parent, she said that she has full trust in the decisions that Talley makes for the school.
"I think Mrs. Talley did the right thing in having the meeting as soon as we were back in school," she said. "If anybody's at fault, it's the School Board for not having policies in place. The bottom line is that this is a lot of money (for the school)."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (813) 661-2454.