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School Board Revisits Cell Tower Policy

The debate over Mount Vernon High School's tower wasted time and energy, staff says.

Most people are familiar with the guy who travels across the country asking "Can you hear me now?" in the wireless commercials.

Apparently, there are still some parts of Fairfax County where the person on the other end of the phone cannot, in fact, hear him.

A company who builds cell phone towers continues to approach Fairfax County Public Schools about putting up the structures on school grounds. Officials describe the school system's policy as fairly strict — towers are only allowed on properties with already existing vertical structures like stadium lights, essentially eliminating elementary schools and most middle schools.

SOME PARENTS and community members are uncomfortable with putting the towers on school grounds. Significant opposition to erecting a tower at Mount Vernon High School led the Fairfax County School Board to postpone its decision on the issue indefinitely last fall, essentially killing the proposal.

Cell phone towers already exist on several campuses including most high school campuses in the county. With the exception of Mount Vernon and Annandale high schools, school board members said there has been very little opposition to the towers.

Citizens has primarily opposed cell phone towers at Mount Vernon High School for aesthetic reasons. Some parents across the county were also concerned about the effect towers might have on students’ health. The Fairfax County Council of PTAs has asked that the school system place a moratorium on erecting cell phone towers.

"There is really not long term information or data on the impact of non-radiated electromagnetic fields and the exposure to children," said the council's president Michelle Menapace.

Menapace said the council also had concerns that ice collecting on the towers in the winter — some located directly over outdoor bleachers — could pose a safety concern.

THE AMOUNT OF radiation emitted by the cell phone towers at schools was significantly below the maximum allowed by the federal government the last time it was measured, said school board member Stuart Gibson.

"The level of radiation from a television is a lot higher than that from a cell phone tower," said Gibson.

The school system's chief operating office Dean Tistadt said it was unfair to the vendor and school system staff — who spent considerable money and energy on the Mount Vernon project — for the school board to ultimately kill the project. The proposed Mount Vernon tower had met all the requirements laid out in the school board's policy and had been approved by the Fairfax County Planning Commission at the time it was halted.

"The contractor spent a significant amount of money to get the project as far along as we got it. After all that time and effort and investment, the school board voted it down. Either we eliminate the ambiguity in the outcome or we get out of the business altogether," said Tistadt.

Tistadt has suggested the board abdicate its right to vote on cell phone towers, setting a policy that states if tower would move forward if the contract meets certain regulations, has Planning Commission approval and the home school principal's permission. With significant public input, school system staff said there is little reason the school board should have to vote on the matter.

"A principal is not going to let one of these one their property if it interferes with their program," said Tistadt.

MOUNT VERNON principal Nardos King was in favor of the cell phone tower. During an interview last week, Tistadt said that if the suggested policy had been in place during the Mount Vernon debate, the cell phone would have gone up on the campus.

During a forum last month, some school board members appeared in favor of the staff's recommendation during initial discussions.

"We shouldn't have [contracts for cell phone towers] if the board has to take it up. It is not a good use of our time," said school board member Phil Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence District).

"We shouldn't make the staff jump through all these hoops if at the end we are going to say no," said school board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill).

Other school board members, particularly those who voted against Mount Vernon's tower proposal, were a little more wary of the proposal.

At-large school board member Steve Hunt said each case involving a school and a cell phone tower is different and that a one-size-fits-all policy may not work for this issue.

Hunt is not against erecting cell phone towers on large campuses but thought they could be problematic for smaller sites, he said. For example, he voted against the Mount Vernon cell phone tower because he thought that the shed and road needed to access the tower took away too much campus space and might have interfered with the high school's program.

"I do think the school board should have a role. We do, from my perspective, represent the community and the community needs to have a means for input into the process. I am a little apprehensive to just opening up the schools to be governed by a different entity, like the Planning Commission," said Hunt.

THE POLICY needed to be fixed, so that contractors were not misled or made to spend significant capital if the cell phone tower was at risk of not being approved, said Hunt.

Mount Vernon school board member and the school board's current chair Dan Storck said the school board should continue to be involved in cell phone tower placements.

Storck — who opposed the Mount Vernon tower because he said it was placed inappropriately — said: "I am not going to rubber-stamp what a cell company wants nor what staff wants."

Storck said he is not opposed to cell phone towers, or even cell phone towers on Mount Vernon's campus, but he said the school board should continue to be involved.

"To me it is pretty clear. The school board should get involved with any decision with respect to school facilities. We clearly need to represent the need of the community in that situation," said Storck.

IF THE SCHOOL board gets out of the cell phone tower business, it could be at a cost to the school system.

When a cell phone tower is erected, the home school receives $25,000. On a monthly basis, wireless companies pay a fee — 60 percent of which goes to the contractor who erects the tower and 40 percent of which goes to the school system. About 15 percent of that fee goes directly to the home school every month, said Tistadt.

Tistadt said the schools use their portion of the contracts to provide Blackberrys, a wireless electronic mail device, to staff, including school principals.

Community members involved in the fight against the Mount Vernon cell phone tower and other towers in general said they would be very concerned if the school board removed itself from the process.

"I think the public would be very concerned. We would want the school board to stay involved," said Mount Vernon resident Lois Passman.

Passman, who lives near Mount Vernon's campus was a leader amongst the opposition to the school's cell phone tower. She said the school board's vote to postpone Mount Vernon cell phone tower was the only thing that kept it from being built.