HALLETTSVILLE – The staff, parents and supporters of the Ezzell school district left a Lavaca County District Court hearing Wednesday with no answer from a judge about whether a cell tower will continue construction next to their school.
“We’re not trying to kill the tower – we just want it moved away from us,” Ezzell Superintendent Lisa Berckenhoff said during the hearing.
Berckenhoff was one of several witnesses who testified in the courtroom of Lavaca County’s 25th District Court Judge Jessica Richard Crawford.
The Ezzell school district, located on Farm-to-Market Road 351 south of Hallettsville, has requested a temporary injunction to force an unfinished AT&T cell tower to move to another location. The school district was granted a temporary restraining order in May that stopped work on the cell tower.
The cell tower is not located on school property, but on privately owned land next to the school. The private property is owned by Frances Elaine Heinemann of Cuero.
Heinemann is listed as the defendant in the temporary restraining order issued to the school district and on court documents; however, the land is leased from her to the phone company for construction of the tower.
At the hearing, witnesses for both sides of the issue stood in front of the judge to offer their testimony without a microphone, which had courtroom spectators straining to hear what was being said.
Attorney Kelley Kalchthaler argued on behalf of Ezzell that the school could face several issues if construction is completed on the tower, which is fewer than 350 feet from the school.
If the tower is built, Kalchthaler said, parents may pull their students out of the small, rural school district.
“Several district parents have threatened to take students out of the district ... 38 students are considered transfer students who chose to go to Ezzell,” Kalchthaler said. “Students leaving could affect sports and funding.”
Kalchthaler also told the judge that the school was never notified by AT&T or Heinemann about the construction of the cell tower.
The attorney representing Heinemann, Andrew Abrameit, presented the judge with a copy of a legal notice of the tower’s construction that was published in the Hallettsville newspaper in February 2018.
Berckenhoff said she does not consistently read the Hallettsville newspaper and that no one in the district was aware of the construction until the tower was being built.
During her testimony, Heinemann told the judge she did not personally attend the Ezzell school or live in Ezzell. Heinemann also said she did not object to the placement of the cell tower.
“After I signed the lease, I did not have control over what happened after,” she said.
An engineer with AT&T also testified for Abrameit, who said he was not aware of any studies that indicate any harm that a cell tower can cause near a school. The engineer also said the tower was designed to work with several cell phone carriers and was only given one site location to run an evaluation.
When asked about the integrity of the tower during inclement weather, the engineer said there would be no concern of the tower falling onto the school.
“The way the tower is built, they do not fall over – it crumbles into itself,” he said.
The engineer’s name was told to the judge during the public hearing, but Abrameit declined to disclose the name of the engineer when asked after the hearing. Abrameit also did not comment about the hearing.
Jessica Rosas, a parent with the Ezzell school district, presented a petition to the judge that included almost 200 signatures from parents and community members. Though the petition was notarized and verified, Abrameit dismissed the authenticity of such a petition.
When presenting her concerns to the judge, Rosas was cut off by Abrameit and told the judge that Rosas’ concerns were not valid because she was not an expert.
Rosas said Wednesday night that she has several concerns about the tower. She said the structure could invite unpredictable events such as criminal activity and death, which the children would witness because the tower was in plain view of the school.
And, she said, there are no studies that say cell phone towers are safe.
“I beg to differ with what the other attorney said. I am a parent, and all of the parents’ concerns are real and valid,” she said.
Abrameit said the Ezzell community would benefit from having the cell tower at the current location, for not just cell phone service to residents but for first responders as well.
“There’s nothing unreasonable about the cell tower,” he said.
Crawford is expected to rule on the issue, possibly this week, Kalchthaler said.
Several Ezzell staff members and teachers also attended the hearing but were not witnesses. The teachers said they fear the future of the school district if the tower is allowed to stay in the same location.
“We’re a family. We’ve taught siblings, and we’ve taught the parents of some of the students. It’s a very close community at Ezzell,” said second-grade teacher Joan Stock. “It takes a village to raise and teach a child, one that we don’t want to lose.”