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Pasco school's plan for cell phone tower draws scrutiny

WESLEY CHAPEL — The Pasco County School Board approved a cell phone tower for the John Long Middle School campus almost exactly one year ago without a peep of opposition.

As the tower winds its way through permitting, though, the rumblings of a protest have begun to sound.

Late last week and early this week, Lisa Vignera — a New Tampa mom who plans to move into the Long Middle attendance zone this year — sent several e-mails and made a number of calls to district officials seeking more information about the cell tower plans.

Vignera simultaneously sought advice from the Hillsborough group Expel Cell Towers, which successfully fought a planned tower at Coleman Middle in South Tampa and is trying to get one removed from Pride Elementary in New Tampa. Mary Meckley, the group's organizer, said via e-mail that she has heard from parents seeking support all over Florida, but the group has not yet expanded its activities into Pasco.

"I'm not against cell phones. I'm not against towers," Vignera said. "I just don't think our children should be used as experimental guinea pigs … to see if there are health hazards."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Web site states that science has not proved that cell phones pose a health threat. It adds, though, that more studies are needed. Those unanswered questions have Vignera concerned.

Beth Brown, the principal at John Long Middle, said she never imagined that anyone would find something negative in placing a cell phone tower on the back half of the campus. And it wasn't possible revenue that drove her to support it, she added.

The school district is to get a $20,000 one-time payment from each carrier when the equipment is installed, and initial rent for the land will be $15,000 per year. Additional tenants would generate thousands more each year.

"My take in it from the beginning has been, 'Good Lord, I just want my cell phone to work,' " said Brown, one of the officials to field Vignera's calls.

She noted that the school already is fairly isolated, with just one road in and out. Cell phone connections are spotty for the school and surrounding neighborhood, she said. If the school loses regular phone service and Internet access — as happened a few times before — Brown simply wants to have a way to keep in touch with the "outside world."

Assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, who also has spoken with Vignera, said the only debate he has heard about the tower is how tall it might be. He noted that the district has no other cell towers on school grounds, although it inherited one on the site where High School EEE is rising in Hudson.

He planned to do more research on the subject, in the event complaints mushroom.

Vignera said she was not sure how hard she would push the issue, although her own review of information about cell towers offered little comfort.

"I don't think a school should be a place for them with so many unanswered questions," she said.

As for the idea of sending her children elsewhere, Vignera resisted that thought as untenable. If one school succeeds in placing a tower on the campus and making money from it, others will line up for the chance, she explained.

"Going to a different middle school is just running from the problem," she said. "At what point do you stop running and direct your attention to the problem?"

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco school's plan for cell phone tower draws scrutiny 02/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 2, 2009 9:06pm]
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