Big Telecom Pushes Bad Cell Tower Deals on ‘Literally Hundreds’ of Schools – Suzanne Burdick, Ph.D. 5/17/24


Telecommunications companies are targeting school properties as prime locations for installing cell towers, antennas and other wireless infrastructure — and many schools are taking the bait, said attorney Robert Berg.

Berg represents parents in multiple lawsuits challenging proposals for cell towers or wireless antenna placements at their kids’ schools.

He told The Defender that “literally hundreds” of U.S. school boards have signed long-term leases with telecom companies.

“The school board members think it’s easy money,” Berg said. The school leaders rent out bits of school property to the wireless companies — such as a small site next to an athletic field or space on the school roof — for a monthly fee.

Many times school leaders have “no idea what they’re doing.”

“They lock themselves into bad contracts that can last for decades, at below market rate terms,” Berg said. “Meanwhile, the cell towers are irradiating all the kids, the staff and the teachers the entire school day, along with the surrounding neighbors 24/7.”

Parents frequently don’t learn of the deal until after it’s been signed — and then it’s too late, he said.

One of Berg’s cases involves what he called “a nightmare scenario” in Wyandotte, Michigan, where the school board, after literally 48 seconds of discussion, approved a contract with T-Mobile to pay the district $1,000 a month to operate a “massive array” of wireless antennas on the chimney atop Washington Elementary School.

Parents didn’t find out until the antennas were being installed. They protested, but the school board and superintendent insisted the contract would not be broken.

Parent dissatisfaction grew so great that the superintendent was forced to resign. The new superintendent asked T-Mobile to move the antennas to a district site — and the superintendent offered to build a taller cell tower for T-Mobile at the district’s expense.

T-Mobile refused.

Several parents sued to prevent T-Mobile from activating the antennas. The parents initially succeeded in court, but then the court dismissed their suit and allowed T-Mobile to turn on the antennas.

“The parents have appealed the decision,” Berg said, “but in the meantime, parents of about 20% of the pre-antenna student population have pulled their kids from the school, many transferring them to other schools or districts, and some selling their homes and moving from the city.”

Jenny DeMarco, co-founder and communications director for Virginians for Safe Technology, told The Defender she “accidentally” discovered that her kids’ private school had been sited for a cell tower. “They never disclosed this to the parents who paid tuition.”

“So I ended up making flyers,” she said. “My husband and I stood in the parking lot lines and handed out the flyers” informing parents of the school’s plans.

Enough parents found out about the proposed cell tower, that school leaders were “forced to address it,” DeMarco said. Although the school administrator evaded DeMarco’s attempts to determine if and when a contract was signed, the tower hasn’t gone up.

Now DeMarco is leading efforts to stop a cell tower slated to be built at a local public high school and adjacent to a local public elementary school.

Wireless company denies health risks

Milestone Towers, the wireless developer who wants to build the tower near the Virginia schools on March 14 told the Fauquier County School Board that it had developed “over 100 towers on public school properties over 20+ years.”

The company promised board members the new tower would bring in $11,520 in annual revenue for the school district.

The company’s presentation failed to mention any research showing negative health effects of wireless radiation exposure, DeMarco said.

Milestone Towers’ one slide on RF safety said their towers “meet or exceed” the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) wireless radiation emission standards. “But that’s not saying much because the FCC’s standards are decades old and don’t take long-term exposure into account,” DeMarco said.

DeMarco said Milestone Tower, a major cell tower developer in her state, routinely denies health risks in its public presentations.

She shared a clip of the company’s founder and president, Len Forkus, telling a 5th grader — who voiced concerns that she may one day get cancer if his company put a cell tower on her school — that there is no research linking cell tower radiation to cancer or other health problems.

“That’s a lie,” DeMarco said.

The Environmental Health Trust, a nonprofit scientific research and education group focused on the effects of wireless radiation, compiled many independent peer-reviewed studies showing serious harm to humans from exposure to wireless radiation, including:

  • A 2017 study that found living near a cell tower was linked to blood changes, which are considered biomarkers predictive of cancer.
  • A 2018 study that showed adolescents exposed to higher levels of wireless radiation had delayed fine and gross motor skills, spatial working memory and attention compared with those exposed to lower radiation levels.
  • A 2015 study that found higher rates of Type 2 diabetes mellitus in elementary students exposed to higher levels of wireless radiation compared with those exposed to lower radiation levels.

Even the telecom workers’ union, Communications Workers of America, warns workers that wireless radiation can cause sterility, eye damage, central nervous system harm and other “serious biological effects.”

“But somehow Milestone Towers omits all this information from its public presentations,” DeMarco said.

Milestone Towers did not respond by deadline to The Defender’s request for comment.

Where’s the informed consent?

When cell tower companies like Milestone Towers don’t tell school leaders about the risks students face from nearby cell towers, parents are denied informed consent, said Fauquier County Public Schools parent Jamie Hinkle.

“When it comes to schools,” Hinkle — whose three daughters attended Fauquier schools — told The Defender, “There has to be informed consent. I want to know about the risks.”

School leaders need to educate themselves about the possible risks to kids’ health and then provide that information to parents so parents can decide whether the risk is worth the money, she said.

“We vote in these school board members to act on behalf of their constituents.”

Wireless contracts lock in schools for decades

Most school leaders Berg has interacted with don’t understand the terms of the leases offered by wireless companies.

The board members think they’re renting out school property for just a few years because the initial term is typically five years.

“But the leases are renewable for additional five-year terms at the sole discretion of the lessee — meaning the cell tower company — so … they’re often 30- or 35-year leases,” Berg said.

The cell tower company alone can cancel the lease, as long as the company pays the rent fee and maintains the wireless facility. “They’re [the contracts] completely one-sided.”

Earlier in 2019, Fauquier’s school board signed this type of lease with Milestone Towers to put a cell tower at a different local high school. A copy of the lease for the newly proposed tower is not publicly available, DeMarco said.

DeMarco — who obtained the 2019 lease via the Freedom of Information Act — said the lease allows the company to operate its tower for 10 years with multiple five-year renewals.

“So the school board won’t be able to revisit the contract until the youngest kid at this high school is at least 45 years old,” she said. “It’s nuts.”

Berg, who analyzed the lease, said it was similar to what he’s seen signed by other schools.

Talk to school leaders early

It’s best if parents can inform school leaders about the risks of wireless radiation before a telecom offer is on the table, Berg said.

“I’ve been successful recently in a couple of instances in getting the boards to stop literally the night before the day they were going to sign the lease,” Berg said. “They backed off because the parents got involved a week or two or a month before and said, ‘Don’t enter the lease.’”

DeMarco and Hinkle are hoping that will happen in their community.

The school board on May 13 voted on whether to build the new cell tower, but the vote was a tie (2-2) with one member absent.

The full board will take another vote at their June 10 meeting.

Meanwhile, parents have been emailing the boards saying they have safety concerns. More than 260 people have signed a petition against the new tower.

Berg said people need to understand that school leaders have a lot of power to stop wireless companies. “The school district is perfectly free to say, ‘No, it’s our property. We don’t want it.’”

State and county officials can’t deny a wireless project application due to safety or health concerns — which are considered “environmental effects” under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — but that’s not the case with school boards, he said.

School leaders can consider any reason they wish, including concerns about health and safety.

However, once school leaders sign a contract, it’s legally much harder to stop a wireless building project.

“That’s why you’ve got to get in early while you can present all that information to the board,” he said. “You’ve got to convince the boards of education that this is a really bad idea.”

Berg suggested parents give board members these three reasons:

1. There is no conclusive evidence proving long-term exposure to wireless radiation is safe — and there are plenty of scientific studies linking wireless radiation with severe health risks to humans, especially children.

“As fiduciaries whose primary responsibility is assuring the health and safety of those who use the schools, school board members should avoid intentionally exposing users of school property to continuous wireless radiation,” Berg said.

2. The lease likely isn’t just a five- or 10-year lease. “It’s a 35-year lease that the school district can’t cancel.”

3. “You’re tying up your ability to use that land for that period — and you’re exposing your teachers, your students, your staff and visitors to the dangers of this wireless radiation for a tiny amount of money. It’s insane.”

“If you can get in and make that presentation, oftentimes they’ll back off,” Berg said. “They realize they’re fiduciaries and this is kind of stupid.”

Next in this series: San Diego parents fight cell antennas installed 50 feet above a preschool playground.