Amid a heated national debate over whether cellphone towers pose health risks, the Wake County school system may allow more communications towers to be placed on school campuses to bring in extra cash.
A Wake County school board committee gave its blessing Wednesday for district administrators to get more information on potentially expanding the number of school sites that are leased to communications companies for use as cellphone towers. The vote came after a presentation estimating Wake could get an additional $5.5 million in revenue over the next decade by allowing 20 new cell towers to be placed at schools.
“There’s a great deal of interest to see what’s possible, and what can be done safely and then how that revenue stream can help us continue support for some of our programs,” said Bill Fletcher, chairman of the school board’s facilities committee.
Wake currently receives $187,792 a year in rent from leases for cell towers or antennas on light stands at Sanderson and Wakefield high schools and Daniels Middle School.
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With the increased demand for wireless service, Betty Parker, Wake’s senior director of real estate services, said the district is frequently contacted about allowing more cell towers at schools.
Milestone Communications, a Virginia-based company that develops wireless towers, reached out to Wake school officials. Milestone partners with school districts around the South, including Greenville County schools in South Carolina, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia and Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland.
Efforts by school districts to add more cell towers have often encountered opposition from parents who worry about the effects of the radio frequency waves broadcast from the communication stations.
Desiree Jaworski, executive director for the Virginia-based Center for Safer Wireless, said in an interview Wednesday there’s not enough data on the long-term effects of exposure from radio frequency radiation to allow cell towers near schools and residential areas. Jaworski said she hopes Wake parents rise up in opposition to placing more cell towers at schools.
“Schools shouldn’t be so concerned about money over health,” Jaworksi said. “They should be concerned about the whole child.”
The American Cancer Society says “most researchers and regulatory authorities do not believe that cell phone towers pose health risks under ordinary conditions.” Parker cited the American Cancer Society in her presentation to the board committee.
“The preliminary information we’ve been told is that the real risk from cellular communication is from holding the phone to your head,” Parker said. “It’s not from the towers.”
But Parker said any agreement Wake enters into would require reasonable efforts to ensure the safety of students, staff and the public. That would include ensuring that radio frequency standards are observed.
New towers could be disguised – maybe to look like trees – to make them blend in aesthetically and ease concerns about eyesores, according to Parker.
The money from leasing land for cell towers could add a new source of revenue at a time when Wake has complained about being cash-strapped. School officials say the district is getting less per student from the state than before the recession in 2008.
Even though the school district is getting $68.5 million more per year from the Wake County Board of Commissioners than in 2014, the district faced a $17.5 million budget shortfall this year. The school board approved cuts such as reducing how often schools are vacuumed and swept.
“Every little bit is going to help us do something,” Fletcher said. “So we get an extra $1 million a year, $2 million a year, $3 million a year, that would be a consistent revenue stream. That could be very helpful.”