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Fairfax middle school parents stand up to proposed cellphone tower

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By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 11:57 PM

The cellphone towers sprouting on Northern Virginia's schools in recent years are mainly the work of one man, Len Forkas, who has crisscrossed the region with promises of revenue and aesthetic sensitivity. The tower he proposed one night this week for Longfellow Middle School would look, he said, like a 150-foot pine tree emerging from the roof of the red-brick Fairfax County schoolhouse.

But Forkas may have met his match at Longfellow, where parents arrived armed with binders full of journal articles and sheaves of statistics about the radiation cellphone towers emit. "Here's the important question," Richard Sargent, a member of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said from the back of the school cafeteria. "What do we have to do so that this thing is never built here?"

Cellphone towers at schools have stoked controversy nationwide in the past decade. Scientists generally agree that the health risks are low, but some cities have banned them because of fears of illness among the students attending classes below.

But resistance of the sort that has developed at Longfellow has been rare among Northern Virginia school districts, which in most cases have accepted the towers, along with promises of revenue and improved cell coverage in communities experiencing a proliferation of data-hungry iPads and smartphones.

Forkas, 51, athletic and even-tempered, has made the same pitch in front of dozens of Northern Virginia PTAs, detailing the revenue that a cellphone tower would provide to the school and trying to assure the crowd that the tower would pose no public health hazard.

Since 2004, Forkas has had great success in Fairfax, despite sporadic PTA resistance. His company, Milestone Communications, based in Reston, now makes most of its revenue by building and maintaining cellphone towers on the campuses of Northern Virginia public schools.

Schools receive $25,000 when the towers are installed, and Milestone gives the school system about 40 percent of the revenue from cellphone companies, usually about $30,000 a year per pole. The Fairfax County school system has received about $4 million from its 23 towers since the first one was installed in 1995. The income is a small piece of the budget for a school district that spends more than $2 billion a year.

"The revenue is an important consideration, but we're also responding to the county's preference to build these structures on public rather than private land," said Lee Ann Pender, director of the school system's Department of Facilities and Transportation Services.

Schools tend to be in locations that cellphone companies find desirable (Longfellow is in the middle of a cellular "dead zone" in the Falls Church area) and often have existing structures that can help disguise the towers.

Opposition has been galvanized in recent months by Milestone's proposal to build towers at several schools, including Longfellow. Projects also are in the works at Sandburg, Thoreau and Irving middle schools, as well as Madison High School.

Parents have started groups such as Gainesville-based Moms for Safe Wireless and Falls Church-based Protect Schools. At Longfellow, the proposition has agitated a group of passionate, educated parents who have collected a mountain of information - much of it inconclusive - on non-ionizing radiation.

"If there's any doubt about this at all, why do we have to build it in our schools? I don't want my children to be exposed," said Dan Sperling, who was applauded by the meeting's nearly 50 attendees.

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