Maya Lin School parents seek removal of cell tower

Maya Lin School parents seek removal of cell tower

Michele Ellson
Maya Lin School

Parents at Maya Lin School are asking schools officials to move cell phone antennae perched on the school’s roof to a building that doesn’t house children and to use an upcoming contract renewal as an opportunity to review whether the deal to put a cell tower on the school was inked legally.

A school district spokeswoman said the district has heard parents’ concerns and is reviewing the contract, and that district officials will look into whether the equipment can be moved to a different site. Superintendent Kirsten Vital announced during the March 11 school board meeting that the district would be reaching out to Maya Lin families and that meetings will be scheduled to discuss the issue.

Parent Sarah Feldman, who launched a petition seeking removal of the cell equipment that had been signed by 130 people as of the March 11 meeting, researched the cell towers and the district’s history with them after learning from another Maya Lin parent that the school had one on its roof. Feldman said she’s concerned about the potential health effects of the radiation the towers emit, and she wants families whose children are attending the two-year-old magnet school to have a say in whether they should be there.

Schools leaders approved contracts with wireless companies to place the towers on top of Wood Middle School in 2002, Maya Lin (then Washington) in 2004 and Alameda High School’s Larry Patton Gym in 2005. The contracts generate tens of thousands of dollars a year for the school district’s facilities fund; the Maya Lin contract has so far generated $252,000, district spokeswoman Susan Davis said, $45,000 of it in the form of a one-time contribution that paid for a new playground at the school.

Feldman said she understands the towers provide revenue to the school district. So she and other parents are asking the district to consider moving the towers to buildings that don’t house students, like the district’s warehouse or district office.

“I’d like them to move it to a building that does not have children in it. That way they can still receive the money, and it won’t harm the kids,” Feldman said.

The American Cancer Society says that most scientists agree that cell phone towers are unlikely to cause cancer; on its website, it says exposure to radiation from the towers is “typically many times lower” than exposure from using a cell phone. But the organization also notes that few human studies have focused on the potential risk posed by the towers.

While the International Agency for Research on Cancer – one of three expert agencies that classify cancer-causing exposures, according to the American Cancer Society – has said that radiofrequency (RF) radiation may be carcinogenic, none of the three has classified cell towers as cancer-causing.

“I realized that some parents are now worried about the potential health risks posed by the tower,” Vital said during the March 11 meeting. “I’d like to gently point out that according to the American Cancer Society, the type of radiofrequency emitted by cell phone towers is not the type that causes cancer. Nor is the amount of radiofrequency energy found at the base of the towers enough to cause cancer.”

She said the contract was signed in 2004 and renewed in 2009 with parents’ support. Parents have questioned that assertion, noting that the contract was originally signed in August 2004, when school was not in session.

But some school districts are saying no to the towers. The board overseeing an Oregon school district that’s similar in size to Alameda Unified reportedly banned cell towers on campus in 2008, saying their safety had not yet been proven, while the Los Angeles Unified School District passed a resolution in 2000 restricting cell towers on school sites and another in 2009 signaling its intent to challenge towers to be installed near school sites that may emit more radiation than allowed by federal law.

Feldman said that it’s the lack of knowledge about the potential effects of the towers that concerns her. And she’d rather see Alameda Unified err on the side of caution.

“We don’t know that they’re perfectly okay,” she said. “That we don’t know is exactly the point.”

The contracts were inked with an initial term of five years and four to five automatic five-year renewals. While minutes of the 2004 board meeting where the Maya Lin lease was approved that were obtained by Feldman through a public records request say the renewals can be made “by mutual consent,” none of the contracts appears to give the district the right to cancel, unless a government health agency determines the radiation emitted by the cell towers is dangerous and orders them removed.

A 2012 amendment to the Maya Lin agreement that refers to a potential redevelopment of the property offers the district the opportunity to require the company that owns the cell equipment there, Cingular Wireless, to move it to a mutually acceptable site or to cancel the contract if agreement on a new site can’t be reached.

The amendment doesn’t refer to a specific project, and the district has not announced plans to redevelop the site.

Parents are also questioning whether the district legally had the right to enter into the contracts to begin with. Jessica Reed said she doesn’t think the law district officials cited when seeking approvals for the cell tower contracts applies to the contracts board members okayed. She said she was unable to find a board policy authorizing this type of lease; Feldman said the board has a policy to only grant contracts for use of school grounds for a year at a time.

Reed and Feldman said parents want a chance to talk with schools leaders, either as part of the decision-making process or after the fact, to voice their concerns and to find out why the contracts are still in effect.

“It’s important that we be part of the conversation as they make this decision,” Feldman said.

Vital said on March 11 that she understands that parents are concerned about the cell tower at Maya Lin and that Cingular will decide over the next six months whether to renew its contract there.

“This will present an opportunity for the community to express its opinion about whether or not to renew,” she said.


Submitted by Steve Hewwitt (not verified) on Thu, Mar 20, 2014

Why would they want to remove the desperately needed income generating cell tower? Besides, those kids must get amazing reception right? How many of these parents let there kids play with their smart phones hours at a time that emit orders of magnitude higher energy RF than that of a cell tower. The antenna's are at minimum 50ft. above the ground. The energy generated decreases almost exponentially as a function of distance.

Submitted by Janet Murphy (not verified) on Thu, Mar 20, 2014

Steve, you're assuming these parents: 1) generally accept the scientific method, 2) generally accept scientific consensus (as opposed to the desultory practice of cherry-picking from academic journals; again misunderstanding the practice of science), 3) accept that they are not more knowledgeable than scientific experts, 4) understand that the scientific method is iterative and not definitive, and 5) that science cannot prove a negative.

These are parents more concerned with hand-waving and anti-science viewpoints, couched in the pernicious and vexatious practice of "I'm just asking questions."

I do believe they genuinely care about their children, though. They just don't care enough to not absolutely harm their ability to receive a quality education; an education that is expensive and requires revenue.

Submitted by Dominick (not verified) on Thu, Mar 20, 2014

Steve Hewwitt, the article does not say the parents are asking the removal of an income generating cell tower but rather the relocation of the tower. So, the income being generated would not be affected. And I'd be surprised if kids between 6-10 years old have cell phones.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Thu, Mar 20, 2014

"Relocating" the tower may be a non-starter, if the engineering plan requires it to be in close proximity to where it is now, to provide adequate coverage.

The wireless carrier likely arrived at the current location based on the engineering plan, and then scouted buildings and property owners that might lease space to support that plan.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Fri, Mar 21, 2014

Hey folks: Just a reminder that we don't print comments from "Anonymous." Even a first name will suffice (though a full name is of course preferred). Thanks!