Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

New Tampa church takes heat over cell tower plans

Grace Episcopal plans to lease some of its land for a cell tower, causing some to question the church’s priorities.

MARLENE SOKOL | Times

Grace Episcopal plans to lease some of its land for a cell tower, causing some to question the church’s priorities.

NEW TAMPA — There were Doughnuts with Dad and Muffins with Mom. There were Thanksgiving powwows and Christmas pageants with children in costume.

Elementary schools welcomed the kids from Grace Episcopal Preschool, confident they were ready for kindergarten.

"They taught Spanish and French," said parent Kristin Mallia. "And the teachers who came in were French. They were Spanish."

Like a lot of New Tampa parents, Mallia relied on Grace Episcopal to give her three children a foundation in academics and social skills, with a strong dose of faith.

But her own faith was shattered in May 2009, when the preschool parted with its popular director, then closed abruptly.

She and others learned later that the church plans to lease some of its land for a cellular telephone tower. Such leases have stirred protests at other schools, with worried parents citing health concerns.

Now, with a cell tower hearing just weeks away, some at Grace Episcopal are wondering: Did their church sacrifice a successful preschool for greater profits?

• • •

At 66, Ed Green spends 15 to 20 hours a week as senior warden, a volunteer position overseeing nonspiritual operations at the 13-year-old church.

He retired early, after a career in commercial real estate investment. He and his wife put two daughters through college and settled in Tampa Palms in 2004.

He and previous warden Mark Anderson acknowledge the church was in talks with T-Mobile about a cell tower long before they closed the preschool, which had been open for more than 10 years.

"What they will pay us will pay our utilities," Green said.

Both men said the preschool was losing money, at a time when the recession was hurting church donations. Pastor Benjamin Twinamaani said as much in a letter to parents in May 2009.

But parents, including former member Crystal Starr, don't believe it. They insist the preschool, with room for about 100, was profitable and had a waiting list.

"It was the school that bailed the church out," said Starr, 45. "I'm surprised the church is still open."

Green said parents who think the preschool made money might not be considering overhead costs — maintenance, insurance, utilities — that the church had to cover.

And while school director Shelby Humbert seemed confident the preschool would fill its seats for 2009-2010, Green and Anderson weren't so sure.

Humbert, now a public school teacher, declined to comment.

But e-mails the parents saved from 2008 and 2009 show she quarreled with church leaders frequently about funding. She was mortified, she wrote, when a check to a county licensing office bounced and when a payment for playground equipment was late. She opposed staff pay cuts, and wanted fundraising proceeds reinvested in the school.

In early 2009, Grace began taking registration for the fall. The school year ended as usual, with an art auction in late April and a faculty luncheon on May 22.

Less than a week later, parents say the church dismissed Humbert at summer camp and in front of her 5-year-old daughter.

When Mallia demanded an explanation, she said Twinamaani told her the church had to cut costs. Twinamaani did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Not long after, parents were told the school was closing. When Mallia confronted Twinamaani again, she said he told her they had no choice: Too many teachers and parents, loyal to Humbert, had pulled out.

The news stunned Starr, who was so committed to the church that when she married, she had her husband baptized there.

"I loved that church and I was so proud," she said. "After what happened, I was ashamed."

• • •

Members of the Tampa Palms Owners Association are watching warily as plans progress for a cell tower.

A rezoning hearing is scheduled for Oct. 14. Some homeowners wonder if more commercial development will follow, but Green said none is planned. The church owns 32 acres, but much of it will be lost to the future widening of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

The empty classrooms, meanwhile, have found a new use. HALO Academy, which specializes in instruction for special needs children, held summer camp there and is leasing space for a smaller school.

Founder Christy Raile said she is not worried about parent backlash over the cell tower because her school serves a need that is not easily met in the community.

To the allegation that Grace got a successful school out of the way to avoid opposition to a tower, Green asked: "Why would you close something that was profitable to wait for something that would pay the utility bills?"

But when asked a question Mallia posed — Why didn't the church simply ask parents to raise more funds for the school? — Green said, "It never came to our mind. We are all fallible."

More than a year later, Mallia is still fuming.

"The churches nowadays, they're not even like they were 30 years ago when I was being raised in them," she said. "They are businesses."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 624-2739 or sokol@stpimes.com.

New Tampa church takes heat over cell tower plans 09/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 3:29pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Search under way for missing sailors; Navy chief orders inquiry

    Military

    SINGAPORE — The U.S. Navy ordered a broad investigation Monday into the performance and readiness of the Pacific-based 7th Fleet after the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in Southeast Asian waters, leaving 10 U.S. sailors missing and others injured.

    Damage is visible as the USS John S. McCain steers toward Singapore’s naval base on Monday.
  2. Told not to look, Donald Trump looks at the solar eclipse

    National

    Of course he looked.

    Monday's solar eclipse — life-giving, eye-threatening, ostensibly apolitical — summoned the nation's First Viewer to the Truman Balcony of the White House around 2:38 p.m. Eastern time.

    The executive metaphor came quickly.

    President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump view the solar eclipse from the Truman balcony of the White House, in Washington, Aug. 21, 2017. [Al Drago | New York Times]
  3. Secret Service says it will run out of money to protect Trump and his family Sept. 30

    National

    WASHINGTON — The Secret Service said Monday that it has enough money to cover the cost of protecting President Donald Trump and his family through the end of September, but after that the agency will hit a federally mandated cap on salaries and overtime unless Congress intervenes.

    Secret service agents walk with President Donald Trump after a ceremony to welcome the 2016 NCAA Football National Champions the Clemson Tigers on the South Lawn of the White House on June 12, 2017. [Olivier Douliery | Sipa USA via TNS]
  4. After fraught debate, Trump to disclose new Afghanistan plan

    War

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will unveil his updated Afghanistan policy Monday night in a rare, prime-time address to a nation that broadly shares his pessimism about American involvement in the 16-year conflict. Although he may send a few thousand more troops, there are no signs of a major shift in …

    U.S. soldiers patrol the perimeter of a weapons cache near the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan in 2003. Sixteen years of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan have left the insurgents as strong as ever and the nation's future precarious. Facing a quagmire, President Donald Trump on Monday will outline his strategy for a country that has historically snared great powers and defied easy solutions.  [Associated Press (2003)]
  5. Trial begins for man accused of threatening to kill Tampa federal judge

    Criminal

    TAMPA — Jason Jerome Springer was in jail awaiting trial on a firearms charge when he heard inmates talking about a case that had made the news.

    His attorney said Jason Jerome Springer, 39, just talked, and there was “no true threat.”