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Pasco school board OKs cell tower over parent objections

The proposal for the Starkey K-8 campus next heads to the county commission
 
Pasco County parents are fighting a proposed cell phone tower on the Starkey Ranch K-8 school campus. Zack Wittman  |  Times
Pasco County parents are fighting a proposed cell phone tower on the Starkey Ranch K-8 school campus. Zack Wittman | Times
Published April 19, 2023

Dozens of Pasco County parents spent nearly two hours Tuesday trying to stop a cell phone tower from rising on their children’s school campus.

They walked away angry, but resolved to keep fighting.

The group had found reason to hope two weeks earlier, when a closely divided School Board delayed action on the tower in order to collect more information and see how the county commission dealt with it. The school district and county government jointly own and operate the Starkey Ranch K-8 site in Odessa, which also includes public sports fields and a library.

But the commission bounced the lease and easement proposal back to the school board without acting.

Mike Carballa
Mike Carballa [ Pasco County ]

“The location of the proposed cell tower is at the discretion of the Pasco County School District,” county administrator Mike Carballa said via email. “Any action by the Pasco Board of County Commissioners on whether to lease the property at our Starkey Ranch shared use site for the cell tower would be premature ahead of the School District’s decision.”

That sent the parents back to the board in search of relief. They came armed with letters from experts, articles and anecdotes all raising the concern that cell towers could generate harmful radiation that might cause cancer. Studies on this issue have been inconclusive, according to the American Cancer Society.

With their children spending nine years at the school, the parents did not want to take the risk.

“What specific research did you review and recommendations were you given to choose our campus as a site for a cell tower?” asked parent Serena Arnold, who said she feared for children’s health.

The group asked the board, which weeks earlier had unanimously approved a tower at a different school campus, to reject the this tower. At the very least, they urged another postponement for more time to study the implications.

Board members said they understood the parents’ worries.

“I can’t feel comfortable if I don’t know 100% that it’s safe,” vice chairperson Alison Crumbley said. “With all of the technology that has come along in the last 10 years, I don’t know.”

She and board member Al Hernandez voted against the lease, suggesting a tower could go elsewhere to accomplish the goal of improved communication in the area, which has limited cell coverage. With a 27-year lease and four added five-year options, Hernandez said, placing a tower at a school has long range potential downsides that should not be ignored.

They did not persuade the other three board members, who argued the school needs more stable ways to communicate with law enforcement, families and others when emergencies arise.

Chairperson Megan Harding said on a recent visit to the site she could not regularly access either cell phone signal or WIFI calling.

Pasco County School Board member Megan Harding.
Pasco County School Board member Megan Harding. [ Pasco County Schools ]

“To me, this is a really huge safety concern,” Harding said. She added that, as a former teacher, “not being able to communicate would terrify me.”

The parents, who gathered hundreds of petition signatures to oppose the tower, shouted at board members as the discussion ended with a 3-2 vote. The proposal next heads to the county commission.

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