The Forsyth County Board of Education is considering a proposal that would allow the erection of cell phone towers on the campuses of three local schools.
School officials say 30-year leases with T-Mobile to allow the towers would generate about $30,000 a year for the school district, which like all public school systems in Georgia is looking for new revenue from creative sources.
Opponents to the proposal have raised safety concerns, questioning whether the towers may expose students to potential health hazards.
We think another element should be introduced into the public discussion of the cell towers, one of a more philosophical nature.
Should the school system be able to take advantage of the tax-free status of its properties to compete with those in the private sector?
We think not.
If there is a need for cell towers to serve the area, companies like T-Mobile normally would have to lease property from private individuals or commercial property owners. The rates for such leases would be set based on value established by the property owner, who in turn must pay taxes on the property.
With no obligation for paying taxes, the county schools certainly can afford to offer more attractive leases than the owner of property on which taxes must be paid. In that regard, the system’s tax-free status gives it an unfair advantage and changes the dynamics of free market competition.
Simply put, the county’s schools shouldn’t be in competition with the private sector for business.
Previously, the school system considered, and ultimately rejected, a proposal to place paid advertising on some of its vehicles. Had school officials accepted the advertising, they would have enjoyed an unfair advantage in competition with private businesses dependent on advertising dollars for their survival — billboard companies, radio and TV, and yes, newspapers like ours.
We understand the desperate need for school systems to raise money, especially in light of the severe budget cuts at the state level in recent years.
We also applaud the very open method employed by the school system in debating the cell tower proposals, which has included public hearings and opportunities for online commenting.
But we don’t think tax-exempt public entities should compete for business against the taxpaying private sector.
As schools scramble for dollars, other ventures that would blur the line between free enterprise and unfair competition will be proposed and evaluated. There is one of those infamous “slippery slopes” here, one such a highly respected school system should avoid.
Now is a good time to establish a principle for future application — one defensible when free enterprise is discussed in a high school economic’s class.