Pasco parents fight cell tower at school, winning a delay

The school board wants to hear first from the county commission, which owns the site.
Starkey Ranch K-8 School, which opened in the 2021-22 academic year, is the site for a proposed cell tower being challenged by parents.
Starkey Ranch K-8 School, which opened in the 2021-22 academic year, is the site for a proposed cell tower being challenged by parents. [ Pasco County Schools ]
Published April 4|Updated April 4

LAND O’ LAKES — Plans have been in place for years, before Starkey Ranch K-8 School was ever built, to erect a cellphone tower on the campus.

But parents who send their children to the school, which opened in the central Pasco County subdivision in 2021, say they didn’t learn about it until Friday. Four days later, they had collected nearly 700 signatures opposing the tower in advance of asking the school board to halt the project.

“We are requesting more time for very concerned parents to find out more about this cell tower,” Jara Weiss, one of a half-dozen parents attending Tuesday’s board meeting, told the members.

She and others raised questions about the safety of having children exposed to cellphone radiation for nine years, noting that studies on whether the towers cause cancer or other illnesses have been inconclusive.

“Are you willing to take that risk? Is $23,000 worth the risk?” parent Serena Arnold asked the board, referring to the annual amount the district would receive from the lease.

The district has cell towers on 11 school sites, with a 12th agreement recently approved. Rarely have they encountered opposition to the proposals.

This project comes with a twist, though. The school district doesn’t directly own the property where the tower would rise.

The county government does. The district comes into play because it has land needed for an easement that would allow the tower owner access to the Odessa property.

The County Commission asked the school board to agree to the easement before it discusses the formal lease.

Board members had reservations.

“I don’t think any towers should be at any schools that are K-12,” said board member Al Hernandez, who pulled the item off the board’s consent agenda for discussion. He offered anecdotes to bolster his concerns about the health risks.

Vice chairperson Alison Crumbley, who has opposed previous tower agreements, had similar stories. She said the research is not clear and contended, “the parents should be honored in these types of issues.”

Board member Colleen Beaudoin raised the counterargument that law enforcement officials have identified communication dead zones in areas near the school.

“It’s a safety issue that weighs extremely heavily on my mind,” Beaudoin said, adding that it terrifies her to think “the unthinkable could happen at one of our schools” and law enforcement couldn’t be reached.

After listening to the discussion, Superintendent Kurt Browning recommended a compromise: “Instead of this board taking the heat now, let the County Commission act first.”

That vote is scheduled for April 18.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong called it an “excellent suggestion” and moved to delay the board action. Chairperson Megan Harding, who said she saw both sides of the argument, added it would give the board time to further research safety questions.

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Parents attending the meeting called the decision a good first step, but expected to be back before the board restating their request — and their worries.

“At the end of the day, we don’t know what we don’t know,” parent Erin Stroupe said.

For now, though, she and the others said they’d prepare to address commissioners. “I guess we’ll see them on April 18,” Stroupe said.

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