LAND O'LAKES — If you smoke, you can't get a job working in Pasco County school cafeterias.
That soon might apply to every position in the school system.
"We are sending a mixed message when we tell students not to smoke then we allow smoking for teachers," School Board member Cynthia Armstrong said Tuesday during a workshop on the issue. "I would really like to see us working out the issues toward this."
Pasco district officials this summer began testing applicants in the food services department for tobacco use, turning away those who turned up positive.
"We told every applicant we screen out tobacco users," food and nutrition services director Rick Kurtz told the board, noting that of 180 interviewed only three complained. "I said, go to the health department, quit smoking and then come back."
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said if the pilot program worked, she hoped to extend this policy to all new hires. She said 16 other departments are ready to move, if the board approves.
Some, like Armstrong, sounded supportive.
Others raised notes of caution, suggesting a more moderate position would be more acceptable.
"I am assuming our goal here other than to be good mentors for the kids . . . is to lower the cost of insurance. Have we ever talked about smoker premiums?" board member Alison Crumbley said. "I am feeling this is a little oppressive. I don't want to make people feel totally put off."
She also was more willing to consider the idea of banning tobacco use on school district grounds, rather than refusing to hire tobacco users.
"I just don't want them to quit their job if they are a good teacher just because they smoke," Crumbley said.
All Pasco schools built after 1996 do not permit tobacco or smoking on campus. Older facilities allow employees to smoke, and it's written into their contracts.
Changing to a nontobacco campus requires agreement of all employees.
Lisa Sloan, a tobacco prevention specialist with the Pasco County Health Department, told the board that targeting the workplace rather than employee hiring would likely have more widespread results. It's also easier to regulate what people do at district locations rather than worry about what they do elsewhere, she added.
She said that about 27 percent of district employees smoke, and that a new policy supported with health services could help reduce those numbers.
Sloan recommended a go-slow approach, to win the widest backing possible.
"Smokers are addicted. This is very uncomfortable," she said. "They don't like restrictions and they certainly don't like surprises. The recommended implementation period for this is six months to a year."
Sarasota and Pinellas schools have gone tobacco-free, Sloan said. Others have taken steps in that direction.
Pasco board members took no action, but indicated they liked the general idea of reducing smoking among employees with a possible goal of a tobacco-use ban within the district. The board can take this step under recently approved amendments to the state Clean Indoor Air Act.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.