There is not a significant reliance on cellular telephone technology in our household. The texting teenager notwithstanding, there is no preponderance to dial while driving, chat in the grocery aisle or go all a-Twitter.
That the cellular service in our heavily wooded neighborhood is unreliable when you get within a quarter-mile of the house helps endear us to the old-fashioned land line. At least it's not two tin cans and a string.
So it is a logical extension of the domestic communication choices that there is no personal fondness toward cellular telephone towers either. They are unsightly, though the few on county property that are disguised as flag poles are preferable to the naked steel towers that dominate the scenery elsewhere. In a flat-landscaped county that prohibits buildings taller than 35 feet, the nearly 200-foot-tall towers are an architectural eyesore.
But aesthetics aren't raising red flags in Meadow Pointe. A small group of parents is objecting to a tower under construction at John Long Middle School in Wesley Chapel, saying the radio frequency radiation could be harmful to their children. Concern is not widespread — a protest last week drew more journalists than demonstrators, and there is no scientific data to substantiate the allegations that the towers are a health risk.
Besides, federal law prohibits local governments from regulating the construction of cell phone towers due to concerns about potential health threats. Likewise, Florida law says local governments can't make decisions about placement that would limit a company's ability to provide cell phone service. (Pasco County commissioners previously had to settle a lawsuit after turning down a cell tower request in Seven Springs and the result is a tower on a county park there.)
In other words, don't expect this parental push to gain much momentum. Yet, a proliferation of cell towers on school grounds isn't on the horizon either.
A second school, Seven Oaks Elementary, also has Pasco School Board approval to install a cell tower, but no agreement with a vendor has been reached. No other schools have cell tower leases, but the land for Fivay High School, under construction in Hudson, had a tower on it when the school district purchased it.
If parents truly are worried about the health risks of cell phones on their kids, they would be better served lobbying for legislation outlawing teenage motorists from using hand-held electronic devises while driving. Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, has introduced such a bill the past two legislation sessions in Tallahassee.
Or, parents could focus their efforts on trying to diminish one of the prime motivations for schools to accept rent payments from cellular telephone companies: skimpy school finances. The tower on the rear of the John Long campus is expected to generate tens of thousands of dollars. The district gets a $20,000 one-time payment from each carrier and the initial rent for the land is $15,000 annually.
You want to discourage cell towers at schools? Encourage more appropriate funding for education in Florida. Otherwise, expect local districts to continue to seek alternative revenue.
The Pasco School District, for instance, approved a contract with Coca-Cola this summer that could bring $2 million to the district over the five-year contract, with 70 percent of the money sent back to individual schools as commissions on the Coke products sold on campus. There also is money set aside for athletics, new or repaired scoreboards, scholarships, enhanced programs and smaller amounts for recycling and teacher and student recognitions.
That is just to help pay for the extras. The federal government helped foot the bill for necessities. Federal stimulus money protected 411 jobs in the school district, positions (and services) that could disappear when the $23 million in federal aid expires. Think of a school without its non-classroom teachers — reading teachers, media specialists, etc. — and you get an idea of the consequences that await.
Other cuts already are in place. Over the past two years the district trimmed summer school classes, reduced athletics, cut an elementary school band program, eliminated vacant administrative positions and required unionized employees to forgo previously negotiated raises in 2008. It could only offer one-time bonus payments this year.
Meanwhile, the Pasco School Board learned last week it doesn't have the money in its five-year capital plan to properly maintain schools, expedite technology upgrades or even build a new elementary school projected to open in Hudson in four years.
A cell phone tower 200 feet in the air should rank near the bottom of a list of parent concerns over public education in Pasco County.