A county delegate has proposed a bill that would mandate the school system to create a policy for considering and approving non-educational uses of school property.

Delegate Geraldine Valentino-Smith said she introduced the bill after community concerns over the construction of cell phone towers on public school grounds. The school system does not have a policy like the proposed bill or a policy addressing cell phone towers on school property, said Max Pugh, a spokesperson for Prince George’s County Public Schools.

“Some people were concerned they didn’t understand the criteria and process in how the development of school property is determined,” Valentino-Smith said.

First reported by The Sentinel in June, the Prince George’s County Public Schools signed a lease in 2011 to allow a wireless communications company to build cell phone towers on 73 potential school sites. The wireless company, Milestone Communications, will pay the school system a one-time fee of $25,000 and 40 percent of gross revenues generated from each tower built, according to the lease. All revenue will go to the school system’s general fund, not individual schools.

Opponents of cell phone towers on school grounds say they oppose towers because of health concerns and a perceived lack of transparency in the approval process.

Charlene Bearisto, a member of the Maryland Coalition Against Cell Towers, said she would like the bill to specifically address the siting of cell phone towers.

“I think the legislation currently proposed is too open ended,” said Bearisto, whose child attends Bowie High School. “It doesn’t have language in there significant enough to repeal the current wireless communications facilities that are planned. I’m hopeful legislation can be reworked and reworded so it can specify procedures to notify parents about siting of cell phone towers on school property.”

Ideally, Bearisto said, the school system would give 180-days notice to parents about proposed cell phone tower sites. The parents and parent-teacher-student association should be able to vote on whether they want a cell phone tower to be built on school property or not, she said.

Bob Ross, president of the Prince George’s County chapter of the NAACP, which opposes the construction of cell phone towers on school property, also said the bill is too vague.

“Community organizations should be involved in determining where the cell phone towers go. For us, it knocked the community out of the decision making process. That’s not how democracy works,” Ross said.

Thea Scarato, a parent from Greenbelt, said she also thinks the bill needs to be more specific. The decision to approve cell phone towers on school grounds, she said, should require public hearings from stakeholders, including residents, parents, teachers, community groups and medical experts.

“The bill needs some reformulating because deciding to put cell towers, a non-educational, commercial business on a school for 30 years, requires far more expertise than just the CEO and PTA – as this bill proposes,” Scarato said.

When asked about the legislation, Len Forkas, president of Milestone Communications, said the company does not get involved with school board processes.

“It’s something between those folks and the school board,” Forkas said.

Despite the concerns from residents, Forkas said Milestone reaches out to communities in order to inform them about the projects. The company, Forkas said, creates a website for every proposed cell tower, hosts town hall meetings and works closely with schools to ensure parents know about the projects.

“We think we do very strong outreach to the community,” Forkas said.

Cell phone tower applications have been approved for Charles Flowers High School, Benjamin Tasker Middle School and Kenmoor Middle School, Forkas said.

Ross said the state coalition is still working to stop construction of the towers

“They think they will wear us again and we’re going to go away,” Ross said, “but those tactics are not going to work. We don’t roll that way.”

 

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