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Cell Phone Towers Dial Up Extra Cash for Schools
More airlines looking at bringing amenity to their planes' for a fee.

By Hayley Ringle, Tribune

Many East Valley school districts have found an easy way to bring in extra money as they deal with tight budgets: leasing land or easements for cell phone towers. It's something school districts have been doing for years, most since the mid-1990s, and it's been a lucrative way of getting extra revenue.

The Mesa Unified School District, which has 38 towers throughout the district, brings in about $419,000 a year from the leases. The Gilbert Unified School District gets $96,000 annually, enough to pay for two teachers. The Chandler Unified School District has received about $1.3million from 15 cell phone towers on district campuses, including a 30-year lease at Basha High School with T-Mobile worth $856,000, said Frank Fletcher, an associate superintendent for support services. "For us it's really pretty painless and we get a significant amount of funding for occupying a piece of our property," Fletcher said. "For us it's kind of like a cash cow. It contributes to our funding issues that we have in the state, and it's a good thing for both parties."

School districts are always looking for new ways to bring in more money to help pay for new technology, school supplies, employee salaries and emergency situations. Most districts rent out their cafeterias or auditoriums for churches and organizations. The schools offer day care or before- and after-school programs to bring in extra money. Other districts, such as Chandler, offer catering services. The cell phone towers are just another source of revenue.

David Giglio, a site acquisition manager with Vinculums, a California company that subcontracts with SBA Towers, scouts out areas to put cell phone towers. SBA is an independent company that builds the towers and then leases the space out to various cell phone carriers. "Essentially you get to the area where a carrier wants a cell tower and look for certain spots that work," said Giglio, adding the Phoenix area has several thousand cell phone towers, usually every mile or two. "You want an open area that's commercial, industrial or a field."

Giglio has worked with several school districts, including Gilbert, where the school board approved leasing land Tuesday for two new cell phone towers at Desert Ridge High School. The district already has eight towers on its campuses. The company will put in new light poles at Desert Ridge's soccer fields to put the cell phone antennas on. This helps the district with lighting their fields, something they couldn't afford before, while giving the cell phone companies the coverage they need.

The district also negotiated extra money for a new digital marquee at Desert Ridge. This agreement is for five years with 10 additional renewable terms. The first year the district will get $17,000, and then after the first year the lease will convert to a monthly payout of $1,000 per tower, increasing 15 percent every five years. Some districts have a monthly lease, and some get a lump sum from the cell phone tower companies.District host cell phone towers.

The Florence Unified School District has two cell phone towers at Walker Butte K-8 School, and is in negotiations for a third tower, said Dana Hawman, director of school construction and developer negotiation. Besides getting extra lights on the baseball fields, Hawman said, the district also negotiated extra money to update Walker Butte's concession stands and to buy a new stage curtain. The district receives between $22,000 and $24,000 a year from the leases. The money is distributed throughout the district to buy books, software and pay for other needs.

The Scottsdale Unified School District leases land for the towers not only for the money, but also for safety reasons to provide adequate cell phone coverage in the neighborhoods, said David Peterson, an assistant superintendent. "We're helping to develop that network," Peterson said. The Scottsdale district has 20 cell phone towers on 14 sites, and receives $22,000 a month from the leases. The money is used to pay salaries for staff members, Peterson said.

While most of the cell phone antennas are on light poles, some of the towers are actually turned into faux palm trees. All of the cell phone towers on Chandler's elementary school campuses and at the transportation building are the palm tree towers, Fletcher said. "We have the palm tree towers because palm trees were natural to the setting," Fletcher said. "It just made sense. It blends with the area."

The Chandler district has 15 cell phone towers, with five more in various stages of being put up, Fletcher said. Some of the cell phone towers have been a concern to parents in the past who say the towers are health risks to their kids. The issue arose in the Chandler district about three years ago. Fletcher said there's no documented health-related issues linked to the towers. "There are studies out there that say cell phones and cell towers are dangerous, but most of them were done under direct radiation," Fletcher said. "That doesn't happen on the school campus. By the time the electromagnetic field drops 60 to 100 feet (from where it's placed on the high towers) it should dissipate to where the kids are."


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