TAMPA — Hillsborough County school principals will continue to decide whether they want cell towers near their buildings.
By a 6-1 vote Tuesday, the School Board decided to extend by five years its contract with the company that has helped lease land to cellular companies and leave its policies on the controversial issue unchanged.
Such lease deals brought around $360,000 last year to schools that agreed to house the towers on their campuses. But they have brought continued objections from some parents and neighborhood residents who say the towers are unsafe or harmful to their property values.
"It can cause cancer or even fall," said 9-year-old Sierra Shellabarger, who came to the meeting with her mother, pointing to a Lego model of a tower she brought before the board.
The district began allowing towers near schools in the late 1990s. By 2008, more than a dozen schools had them. But residents in some communities had begun to fight back, filling PTA meetings and starting Facebook campaigns. They're still fighting.
"It's not just this small group of people," said parent Lisa Ledbetter, referring to the 10 who spoke to the board Tuesday. "A lot of people feel defeated."
Board member Stacy White voiced strong objections to the deal with Collier Enterprises II, raising questions about the health effects of tower radiation and numerous changes in the company's structure.
"The more I dig into this, the more it smells bad," he said.
But he failed to persuade any of his colleagues to end their policy of leaving such decisions in principals' hands, or to put the contract renewal out for competitive bidding.
Member Jack Lamb voiced full confidence in superintendent MaryEllen Elia's recommendation to continue the arrangement. He said the policy has brought needed resources to schools and "let kids have some things they never would have had, if it wasn't for the towers."
In other business Tuesday, the School Board approved a request to purchase around 900 Apple iPads for students and teachers at Franklin and Ferrell middle schools, which are opening next fall as single-gender academies.
"We can all agree that putting technology in the hands of our students is the future," said Josie Sanders, general director of middle school education for the district. "We plan to use the iPad to enhance classroom instruction."
Board members acknowledged the high cost — $903,000, which will be paid with federal Title 1 and magnet schools assistance funds. And Candy Olson said that total price should have been displayed more prominently in the board's public materials.
But none questioned the wisdom of the investment.
"I see this as a pilot program for something much larger," said April Griffin. "I am so happy we're finally coming into the 21st century where technology is concerned."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.