Facing public opposition to a proposed cell tower on top of Flathead High School, the Kalispell public school board voted 7-1 Tuesday night against entering into a lease agreement with Verizon Wireless, halting the project from moving forward.
Led by a grassroots group called the Committee for Responsible Information on the Health of Children and Cell Tower Exposure, community members had expressed concerns over potential health risks associated with cell tower radiation.
Those concerns were echoed at an hour-long public forum held before the school board’s regularly scheduled 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting. Committee members said they gathered 1,040 signatures for a petition opposing the cell tower.
The school district said 17 people spoke at the forum, all against the tower. A Verizon representative attended the forum to provide information and answer questions.
The board had the option of extending the public comment period until its June 12 meeting before taking action but instead voted 7-1 in favor of not proceeding with the lease agreement. Four trustees were absent, while one new trustee was sworn in, giving the board a total of eight votes.
“I think there was generally a feeling that the better decision, the safer decision, is on the side of not placing it there,” Kalispell Superintendent of Schools Mark Flatau said.
Jack Fallon, the board’s vice chair, cast the lone dissenting vote, arguing that evidence on both sides of the debate was inconclusive and that it had become “strictly an emotional issue.” In an interview, he pointed out that past technologies stirred fears when they were new but are now integral to everyday life. He also questioned parents worrying about a tower while simultaneously paying for their kids’ cell phone bills.
Fallon argued that the $20,400 rental fee the district would have received, while small, could have been helpful. He also lamented that trustees were singled out and called names on social media, while in other instances parents said they would pull their kids out of school if the tower passed.
“In both cases I consider that bullying and intimidation,” he said. “I find it ironic that the adults are practicing what they don’t want to see their children doing.”
The idea of constructing a cell tower arose during planning discussions for Flathead High School’s expansive renovation project. Representatives from Verizon approached school officials about including the tower in the remodel.
The “building and rooftop lease agreement” would have granted “Gold Creek Cellular of Montana Limited Partnership d/b/a Verizon Wireless” the right to “install, maintain and operate communications equipment” at Flathead High School.
A Verizon spokesperson said the tower would have added “capacity for our customers in that area,” and noted that the wireless company has towers on other schools in Montana.
In a statement, Ming Lovejoy, Kay Walker and Erin Blair, the three primary organizers of the opposition committee, praised Flatau and the school board for “taking the time to review all the comments and information regarding the pros and cons of the lease.”
“(We thank you) for your very apparent care and desire to provide the best opportunities for our students, for your efforts, fiscal responsibility, and for the many hours of dedicated service given generously by the highly qualified volunteer board,” they wrote. “We appreciate all you do to ensure our children have the best, safest, and most productive education possible.”