WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - All this week, members of the Palm Beach County School District's budget advisory committee will spend their time mulling over millions of dollars in proposed spending cuts to balance the bottom line of next year's school budget.
But committee members and district officials are also exploring ideas to generate revenue in future years to make that bottom line better.
Some of those ideas include leasing land for cellphone towers and allowing advertising on buses and the district's website .
"We're trying to figure out ways we can bring in as much money as possible to offset the losses," said Barry Present, the district's director of real estate services.
The advisory committee last month asked district staffers to look into the cell tower idea and other possible revenue generators. All of the explorations are in the early stages, committee member Ken Cohen said.
Even if something proved feasible, it would not happen in time to provide relief for next year's budget, which is estimated to have a $35 million deficit.
The district leases space for cellphone towers at nine schools, Present said. The last one built was in 2005 at Western Pines Middle School. The rest were built in the 1990s.
Present said he did not have an estimate of how much money could be generated through cellphone towers because what he is exploring is different from the way leases were handled nearly 20 years ago.
He is studying a program in which Hillsborough County partnered with a company to examine all of the district's school sites, looking for gaps in the cellphone coverage grid that would make those sites more attractive to cellular companies.
The partner company would put up the money to build and manage the tower and would get a cut of the revenue from leasing space to cellular providers .
"Onesies and twosies take too much time, so let's take a more comprehensive approach to this," Present said.
Present said the biggest hurdle preventing any sort of comprehensive marketing of school sites for cellphone towers is the moratorium the school board put on cell towers at schools in the late 1990s.
The move followed complaints from Boca Raton-area parents .
The board made an exception in 2005 to allow the Western Pines tower at the request of community members seeking better cellphone reception, Present said.
"Nothing could happen unless the moratorium was lifted," Present said.
School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri, who represents the Boca Raton area, said there was never definitive testimony in the 1990s to show whether cell towers at schools would hurt children's health.
Barbieri said if the board were to consider lifting the moratorium, he would want to see definitive research about the health effects of cell towers at schools.
"If there is any danger, then we do not want to put children in harm's way," Barbieri said. "If not, it sounds like an interesting idea to generate revenue."
The budget advisory committee also expressed interest in selling advertising space on school buses, but that idea appears to be on ice until at least next year.
A bill introduced this legislative session by Sens. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, failed to make it out of the Senate, and a companion bus advertising bill failed to make it out of the House, said Vern Pickup-Crawford, the school district's lobbyist.
At the budget committee meeting last month, Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke said the district has received requests from companies to advertise on its website.
The website could be attractive because it gets about 7 million page views a month from about 340,000 visitors a month, district spokesman Nat Harrington said.
He said district officials do not yet have either a plan or a revenue estimate for web advertising.
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