LAND O’ LAKES — Pasco County schools are an odd mixture when it comes to whether employees can step outside for a smoke break.
Accommodations are made for smoking employees at older schools. Newer schools, though, are tobacco-free campuses, a policy many in the district have long wanted to see spread to every school.
“I see our district ultimately getting there,” board member Joanne Hurley said.
Just how long it will take, and what the path will be, is another matter.
The topic has emerged again after the district’s Health and Wellness Incentive Committee let it be known it wants all schools to be tobacco-free. The school district floated the idea of opening up contract negotiations with United School Employees to try to make it happen soon, but union President Lynne Webb said she sees no need to rush.
“I think it’s admirable the district wants to dig into this issue,” she said. “But I think they should get some data first to see what the impact would be. I don’t think it’s something that warrants opening negotiations now.”
Among school board members, Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong is the most enthusiastic about making the change. She sits on the health committee and said members had been discussing the issue for quite some time.
“A lot of school boards already have gone smoke free,” Armstrong said. “I feel now is the time for us to pursue it.”
Other board members applaud the goal, but are less certain about how best to accomplish it.
“I’m not one who wants to regulate what adults do,” board member Steve Luikart said.
Hurley and board member Alison Crumbley said they want to learn more, but both also said they have concerns and are in no hurry to move forward.
Crumbley said she would rather offer incentives to employees to quit smoking, rather than take punitive action against them.
“Ultimately, I’d rather the people who work for us not smoke because it’s better for their health and it’s better for our health-care costs,” Crumbley said.
Board member Allen Altman said the health committee is on the right track.
“I’m not sure how the ultimate details would be worked out,” he said. “But I believe our schools should be tobacco free and that is an important example for us to set for our students and their future health.”
In Pasco, schools built since 1996 already are tobacco-free campuses. Older schools are not.
The school district’s contract with the employees’ union specifies that schools in existence before July 1, 1996, must have outdoor smoking areas for employees. The areas are supposed to be shielded from student view.
To convert one of those schools to a tobacco-free policy requires a unanimous vote of the faculty and staff. Armstrong said that’s a stiff barrier to overcome.
“One person can determine which direction the entire school is going to go,” Armstrong said. “I don’t feel that is a fair assessment of the situation.”
But changing the situation requires negotiations with the union. Webb said those talks can wait until the regular contract negotiations start next year. In the meantime, she said, the union would be willing to help collect data to show what the effect would be.
Webb also said she would like to know more about the district’s motivation.
“If they are concerned about students seeing employees smoking, they are outside and shielded from view,” Webb said. “If the issue is protecting adults, this is legal behavior.”
Webb said in some ways the tobacco-free campuses can be more problematic. Employees at some of those schools stop for a smoke just before they go on campus because they know it’s their last opportunity for the rest of the day. In those cases, they don’t have to be shielded from students’ view.
“I don’t necessarily think that’s a better way,” she said.
The district has made some strides in its battle against tobacco, Armstrong said. Pasco provides help for employees who want to go through smoking-cessation programs, and employees also can get help kicking the habit through the school district health centers operated by the private firm CareHere.
“We are doing everything we can to make it easier for them to reach that goal,” Armstrong said.
This isn’t the first time the district has looked at moving toward a strictly tobacco-free workplace. The district’s Food and Nutrition Services Department began a pilot program two years ago to screen out tobacco users during the hiring process.
The district dropped that practice this year, though, because it was having too much trouble filling all its job openings.