Schools Build Cell Towers to Generate Revenue

Published August 31, 2017

“School districts—hard up for cash—are turning to an unlikely source of revenue: cell towers,” NPR reported in July. “The multistory metal giants are cropping up on school grounds in Chicago, Milpitas, Calif., Collier County, Fla. and many other places across the country.

“The big reason: money,” NPR reported. “As education budgets dwindle, districts are forming partnerships with telecom companies to allow use of their land in exchange for some of the profits.”

Taxpayer Relief

Jesse Hathaway, managing editor of School Reform News sister publication Budget & Tax News, says it’s good for everyone when schools work with the private sector.

“Government schools leasing portions of taxpayer-owned land to telecom companies is a great example of how private businesses and the government can work together for everyone’s benefit,” Hathaway said. “Parents, students, and employees receive better cell service, and pressure on taxpayers for more money is relieved.”

‘A Great Trend’

Although the cell towers provide a good source of revenue for schools, some parents have raised concerns about possible radiation from the towers. Hathaway says these concerns are unfounded.

“There is no credible evidence that proximity to a cell tower increases children’s and school employees’ health risk,” Hathaway said. “Lacking evidence of a credible health risk, the remaining objections to such deals are financial. As long as school officials are selling access to the land at market rates, this is a great trend. School officials should look for more ways to partner with the private sector, ensuring that taxpayers receive market rates for private use of the property and assets they ultimately own.”

Market Discipline

Kevin Currie-Knight, a teaching assistant professor of special education at East Carolina University, says when school districts build cell towers, only part of the school’s operations acts like a business, and most school functions remain the same.

“The only way this would change how teachers, parents, and students experience school is if the school itself became a business,” Currie-Knight said.

Currie-Knight says market pressures discipline organizations and make them more effective.

“Schools acting like businesses and schools being businesses are two very different things,” Currie-Knight said. “The reason markets work is not because businesses act like businesses, but because market pressures induce certain ‘businesslike’ behaviors from firms.”

The public sector can be privatized only “by opening up a market in that space,” Currie-Knight says.

“Unless consumers can shop around [and] are using their own money to purchase goods from competing providers, and the money follows the consumer, schools ‘acting like a business’ is the equivalent of play-acting,” Currie-Knight said. “Markets are key.”

Lindsey Schulenburg ([email protected]) writes from Chicago, Illinois.