Several years ago, the Reader published an article on cell-phone towers, safety concerns, and the Sweetwater Union High School District. This old story has a new twist.
When the story was published three years ago, cell-tower money from lucrative contracts with telecommunications companies went into the general fund — the pool of money that goes directly to students' needs. Now, Sweetwater has begun to divert some of this revenue into its real-estate dealings.
Sweetwater has several pieces of property that trustees want to get on the market. These properties have been purchased with taxpayer money; the normal process for excess property to go through is first to establish that the properties are indeed excess, and then to go to the public and ask the public what they want to do with the excess property.
Sweetwater circumvented the process and operated as if these were investment properties rather than properties purchased for district needs. The district hired big-ticket consultants to ready the properties for high-density residential developments.
The district uses something called the special reserve fund, or Fund 40, to finance land speculation and make interest-only payments on one of the properties, located on L Street.
Fund 40, heretofore, has consisted of money set aside from an old Caltrans settlement, old redevelopment money, and rent revenue from the L Street property.
The district publicly maintains that Fund 40, or the money spent on the property boondoggle, does not come from students.
In fact, at an August 10 meeting, Thomas Calhoun, the school district’s executive facilities manager, told trustees, “No bond funds or general funds were spent on any of this asset [property] development. I want to make sure we’re not taking money from students….”
Interim trustee Lyn Neylon followed up on Calhoun’s remark by saying, “If I understand it correctly, once money from the state gets put in a certain pot, then it has to stay in that pot. It’s not like we can take that money and spend it on kids’ books.”
Though district officials did seem to understand that the money should stay in the general fund for things like books, in fact, money is now being diverted to the real-estate fund. Here’s how:
Sweetwater allows telecommunications companies to place cell-phone towers on campuses throughout the district. Although the judge is still out on the possible health hazards posed by cell-tower radiation emissions, the rental income is considerable.
According to an August email from Karen Michel, Sweetwater’s chief financial officer, “The district currently has 26 operating cell sites…the annual rental revenue from those sites ranges from $700,000 to $900,000 [per cell site].”
In 2011, when the Reader was researching Sweetwater cell towers, Lillian Leopold, then-spokesperson for the district, sent an email saying that, “Monthly revenue [from the cell sites] goes into the general fund.”
In 2012, the board voted to approve former superintendent Ed Brand’s recommendation that money from 13 of 29 cell sites, which totaled $3.2 million annually, be redirected to the district’s iPad initiative. The rest of the revenue stream went to the general fund.
Whether to iPads or to the general fund, revenues continued to flow toward the students’ needs.
But this summer, on June 30, four interim boardmembers and trustee John McCann voted for this recommendation:
“The district has numerous agreements for cellular facilities on various school sites. The license agreements require a lump sum initial payment and monthly ‘rent’ payments. Since these funds are generated from real estate assets [schools], the revenue from these agreements will go to the Special Reserve Fund [Fund 40]….”
At this time, only the revenue from the cell towers at Montgomery High School will go into the real-estate fund. At Montgomery High, one cell-phone tower, with a newly added generator, fetches $3150 a month; the other earns $2596 a month for the district.
Concerns about cell-phone towers and potential health hazards are common.
In July 2014, the City of San Marcos, in response to public pressure, modified its cell-tower placement regulations.
In 2013, the U-T reported that Encinitas parents were withdrawing their children from Innovation Centre Encinitas, a school run by Julian Charter School, because of cell-phone antennas.
In 2009, Los Angeles Unified School District passed a resolution “which opposes the location of cell phone towers in close proximity to schools.”
Meanwhile, the district’s chief financial officer says Sweetwater has “nine more cell sites in the works.”