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Parents protest plans to build cell tower at South Tampa school

TAMPA — Barely a half-hour into a heated community meeting on Wednesday, a woman wearing a pumpkin-orange and black "NO TOWER" T-shirt walked toward the front of the Coleman Middle School cafeteria.

"Could I just have a show of hands if you're opposed to the tower," asked the woman, Carrie Grimail, the mother to three children at nearby Dale Mabry Elementary School.

Across the room, people in similar shirts lifted their hands in protest of the controversial plan to erect a 100-foot cell phone tower at the South Tampa school.

The decision is not up to the more than 300 people who filled the cafeteria; Coleman principal Michael Hoskinson will have the final say.

But the moment symbolized how divisive this issue has become since parents learned of the school's plans last year.

Since then, they have circulated petitions and collected more than 900 signatures in opposition to the plan.

They've published the principal's school-issued e-mail address and phone number on yard signs that dotted the neighborhood and urged everyone to bombard him with calls and letters.

They've fired off e-mails to their elected representatives. Three of them — Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder and Hillsborough County School Board members April Griffin and Candy Olson — attended Wednesday's forum.

And some parents have flown across the country on their own dime accumulating scientific data supporting their position: Schools are no place for cell phone towers, at least not yet.

"The cellular phone industry is still too new to have sufficient epidemiological data to assure anyone of the safety of these towers," said Brenda Kocher, one of 49 parents who signed up to speak Wednesday.

Each speaker from the public sector had three minutes to talk, although advocates and experts supporting the cell tower were allowed far more time. One engineer spoke for more than 20 minutes defending the safety of cell phone towers.

"The measurements at the proposed tower site were less than 1 percent of the (Federal Communications) Commission's uncontrolled environment standards. There is no risk,'' said Charles Cooper, the Sarasota engineer. "There is very little energy to be measured near base stations."

During the contentious three-hour meeting, police were summoned to usher angry parents to their seats, audience members heckled those with opinions different from their own, and adults talked over one another.

As the state prepares to trim school budgets — $26-million from Hillsborough, officials estimate — more schools are turning to cell phone towers to pay for basics such as copy machines and student textbooks.

Parents don't like it; the district thinks it's a coup.

"We are expected to do more with less," Hoskinson said. "Teachers already pull money out of their own pockets to use in the classrooms."

On average, schools make more than $11,000 annually per carrier. Towers can accommodate as many as five carriers and rent rises 3 to 4 percent annually.

Coleman would stand to make $36,000 per year and a total of $432,000 over the course of a 10-year lease, Hoskinson said.

But parents said that if the school is that hard up for cash, they would rather raise the money themselves.

"I may not be the best public speaker in the world, but I know how to raise money," said Mark Williams. "And I guarantee you, within three months, I can have you $100,000."

Hoskinson assured parents that he heard their impassioned pleas and will take them under consideration.

"It is my responsibility as principal to keep an open mind and to listen to viewpoints and also to review all available research, but I do want to stress that we do keep children's safety our first concern," he said.

He said he would consult with district officials and render a decision as early as Friday.

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Parents protest plans to build cell tower at South Tampa school 01/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 5:47pm]
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