Prince George’s the latest school system to face debate over planned cellphone towers

Some residents are opposed, citing health and other concerns

Prince George’s County has become the latest school system in the Washington region to become locked in a debate over building cellphone towers on school property.

Montgomery County officials recently abandoned plans to have a cellphone tower built at Wootton High School in Rockville after an uproar from parents. And this year, a company withdrew its plans to build a tower at Piney Orchard Elementary School in Anne Arundel County after community opposition and issues with zoning.

Now, some Prince George’s parents, concerned about exposure to radio-frequency radiation, are fighting the school system’s plan to allow a Virginia-based communications company to erect towers on county school grounds and then sublease the monopoles to carriers.

Quon Wilson, a spokesman for the county’s public schools, said the system has an agreement with Milestone Communications, which is working on nine sites for such towers, including Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrollton and Oxon Hill Middle School in Oxon Hill.

Under the agreement with Milestone, the school system would receive $25,000 for each site and 40 percent of the gross revenue from the tower on its site. The school system estimates that the agreement could generate $2.5 million over five years.

The master lease agreement was approved in 2011, but Milestone is now moving forward with plans to construct the towers. Milestone can lease the tower space for 10 years with up to a 20-year extension.

“I don’t think putting cell towers on school property should be a business that schools are involved in,” said Thea Scarato, a parent who has testified before the Board of Education on studies that raise concerns about the dangers posed by cellphone towers.

Placement of the towers, which have popped up increasingly in suburban communities as the demand for wireless technology has grown, is often controversial because of the potential to ruin vistas and because they raise health worries.

Shortly after the board approved the policy, but before the lease agreement was signed, Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s) introduced a bill to block the school system from allowing the towers on school sites after she received complaints from residents. The legislation did not pass.

When Milestone joined with the county three years ago, it identified 73 potential sites for constructing the towers.

Since then, it has received a building permit for a cell tower at Green Valley Academy in Temple Hills and has filed another permit at Benjamin Tasker in Bowie.

Eric Martin, a member of a Bowie-based organization that monitors community development projects, told the Prince George’s Sentinel last month that in the case of cell phone towers on school properties, “no amount of money is worth it.”

Board Chairman Segun Eubanks said the towers could be built abutting school grounds if the school system did not have an agreement to allow them on school property.

“We felt it was best for us to have control over that situation and be able to have the schools gain the economic benefit that others would be gaining,” Eubanks said. “That has always been our perspective.”

Prince George’s schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell said the cell towers are not a huge financial benefit for the school system, but they provide the community with a benefit: better cellphone coverage from carriers.

Maxwell said there is also an educational component to having the towers near the schools. It will help to ensure that all of the county schools are connected to wireless networks and that students can use technology that will make them college and career ready, he said.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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