For a school system in an era of bare-bones budgets, building cellphone towers on school properties can mean easy money. But for some parents, the towers pose health and safety risks for their children.
Anne Arundel County is the latest to become locked in this debate.
The county's school system hopes to erect at least 40 towers, which can hold antennas from up to five cellphone carriers, for payments totaling $5 million through 2021. The first tower is already under construction at Broadneck High School on the Broadneck Peninsula.
But the fledgling program has run into opposition from parents who say the towers pose a health hazard because of radio frequencies as well as the possibility of collapse or fires. The County Council is considering whether to restrict cell towers at schools, by requiring at least a football field's distance between the tower and any other structures on school property.
The towers can be lucrative for school systems. Baltimore City schools collected nearly $678,000 by allowing more than a dozen cellphone towers on school property this year. And Montgomery County will make nearly $832,000 from cell towers this year — though the school system allows parents to vote on whether they want the towers.
"If a school does not want a cell tower located on their property, it is not placed there," Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.
Cellphone companies seek to place towers at schools because they often are in the middle of huge residential areas where there aren't other places for these structures.
"The wireless networks that serve residential communities cannot keep pace with demand," said Len Forkas, president of Milestone Communications, the company that has contracted with Anne Arundel schools. "Many school sites offer the best opportunity to conceal the tower so it blends in with the environment."
Forkas said the council bill being considered in Anne Arundel, "eliminates or significantly restricts that opportunity."
Several Baltimore area school districts don't have cell towers. Harford County has considered the idea, said schools spokeswoman Lindsay B. Bilodeau, and years ago the county government put a group together to establish approval procedures.
"We've been approached in the past by companies, but we have not been able to work out a deal that would be beneficial to both parties," Bilodeau said. "We may consider any viable options that may present themselves in the future."
Opposition to cell towers formed quickly in Anne Arundel, led by parents and residents near Piney Orchard Elementary School in Odenton, the second site being considered for a cell tower in the county after Broadneck.
The group formed Anne Arundel County Against Cell Towers at Schools, an organization that has a website, a Facebook group, a flier distribution effort and a signature color for its cause — red — which advocates wear to meetings.
Jen Beers, a Piney Orchard parent, acknowledged studies of health risks associated with cell tower radio waves are inconclusive. Still, she said if a tower is built at Piney Orchard, she'll worry.
"I do not feel good about 'inconclusive,'" she told members of the County Council during a recent meeting on the proposal to ban towers at schools.
Dr. Donald Milton, director of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland, said parents should not be worried about radio frequency emissions from cellphone towers at schools.
Milton said if there's any risk of such emissions contributing to cancer or health problems — "and that's a big if," he said — than cellphones and cordless phones should be more of a concern than towers.
"If you're concerned about radio frequency exposure, it's the transmitter in your pocket that you hold up next to your head that you should be concerned about," he said. "You get about 100 times more exposure from that than your tower."
Officials with Milestone Communications cite studies conducted in Fairfax County, Va., where 31 towers are located at 25 school sites. The county studied radio frequency emissions at the behest of its school board, and the study found schools with cell towers had radio frequency emissions 121,793 times lower than federal safety standards, according to the school system.
The Federal Communications Commission also has said cellphone towers generally operate well below safety limits for such emissions.
Anne Arundel school officials say any risk is minimal — and the reward is more money for schools.
"In an era of ongoing fiscal restraints … it is incumbent upon Anne Arundel County Public Schools to operate in an effective and efficient manner," said Alex Szachnowicz, chief operating officer for the school system.
The county does not have specific plans for the money it raises from cellphone towers. Money will go into the school system's general fund, and the County Council would have to approve how it is spent. The money would not necessarily directly benefit schools where the tower is located, Szachnowicz said.
"To enrich a school at the expense of another school … is somewhat problematic in a public school environment," Szachnowicz said.
In Montgomery County, cell tower revenue is split evenly among the school, the school's cluster and the overall school system. Fairfax County lets the school keep 15 percent, with 85 percent going to the district.
Anne Arundel County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents Piney Orchard and proposed banning towers at schools, said he's heard health concerns from parents and neighbors and is worried about towers falling or catching fire. But he's particularly concerned about the school system raising money on its own — outside the purview of the council.
"They are not a taxing authority. They are not elected. They are not a fiscal authority," Benoit said. "Until they are, the County Council makes the final decision on every dollar collected. That's why we pass a budget every year."
School officials, though, have bristled at the idea of the council limiting their ability to raise money from the towers.
Board of Education President Teresa Milio Birge said the council has given schools only the "bare minimum" of funding, and banning towers "closes off an avenue to enhance our school system without asking taxpayers for additional funding."
Benoit's bill would set a 300-foot buffer between a cellphone tower and any structures on a school property. County law already requires a 200-foot setback from the property line.
Benoit initially proposed a stronger measure, but amended his bill after officials feared an outright ban would run afoul of federal law that prohibits local governments from completely blocking cell towers.
County planning officials estimate dozens of schools could still have towers built under the amended law, but school officials are doubtful. Bob Mosier, spokesman for the schools system, said the bill would cut off the school system's ability to accommodate towers.
"You can dress this bill up in whatever Halloween costume you want, but it remains, in essence, a ban on cell towers on school property," Mosier said.
At Broadneck High School, where a tower is under construction beyond athletic fields near trees, the tower is 200 feet from the property line and 300 feet from the school. But if "school structure" is interpreted to include concession stands, scoreboards or fences, Broadneck might not comply.
Councilman John Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican, said as much when he noted at the council meeting that the bill would likely kill the school system's cell tower plans.
The Anne Arundel County Council plans to hold a public hearing Nov. 4 in Annapolis on the matter.