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School cell tower system is scrutinized in Hillsborough

TAMPA — Members of the Hillsborough County School Board are taking a second look at the district's practice of leasing school land for cell phone and WiFi towers.

Everything from child safety to the decision-making power of principals was discussed at a workshop Tuesday.

Stacy White, a new member who had suggested the workshop, asked why principals were placed in the highly political position of deciding whether to locate towers on their campuses.

"I don't think it's fair for us to put our principals in the middle of that," he said.

Member Susan Valdes was troubled by some purchases principals have made from more than $300,000 a year in rental profits, everything from furniture to computer boards.

While happy to see the money used for high-tech devices, she asked, "Why should these dollars be used to buy teacher desks?"

White leveled the harshest criticism, arguing that the technology has not been used long enough for epidemiologists to study the lasting effects of exposure to the radiation.

"I would be willing to say that cell towers might cause harm," he said, drawing applause from an audience that was not allowed to comment. "I'm willing to make that error. … However, I'm not willing to say that these cell towers are indeed safe when we don't know if, down the road, they can turn out to not be."

No action could be taken, as the session was a discussion and not a voting meeting.

Nineteen schools have towers in operation or under construction, officials told the board. Principals spent the profits on everything from two-way radios at Cannella Elementary School in Carrollwood to African American theme books for Robles Elementary in east Tampa.

But the towers have been the bane of citizen activists from South Tampa to New Tampa, and some tower proposals have been shot down at county zoning hearings.

With a Republican governor and Legislature intent on cutting school funding, some board members said it would be foolish to take this revenue source away from principals.

"They do it because they need the money," member Carol Kurdell said. "You think it was bad before? It's going to be really bad now. So just be prepared."

The staff and board members acknowledged that when towers are rejected at schools, they can be built at churches and parks that might sit even closer to school buildings.

But areas of uncertainty remain. Opinions are divided as to what affect the towers have on property values.

"If you lived on an 80-by-100 lot in suburban Hillsborough County, would you want your view, 200 feet out your back yard, to be a cell tower?" White asked.

School cell tower system is scrutinized in Hillsborough 03/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 10:25pm]
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