BROOKSVILLE — Faced with a proposal to ban tobacco from all school district property, the School Board opted to butt out.
The comprehensive tobacco-free policy, advocated by the state Department of Health, would forbid smoking and other forms of tobacco use on all district property, including athletic fields and parking lots.
That would have meant snuffing out all tobacco use not just on school campuses but also on other property where students rarely or never go, such as the maintenance office and the district administration headquarters in Brooksville.
That's going too far, a majority of board members agreed during a workshop Tuesday.
"At the end of the day, is smoking a smart choice? No, it's not," member Matt Foreman said. "But do you have the ability, as a person living in the United States, to have a choice? Yes, you do. To that extent, I want to stay out of it."
"That sums it up," member Cynthia Moore said.
"Well said," member John Sweeney commended.
The district currently forbids the use of tobacco products "in any area utilized by students or designated for student activities." That gives some leeway for unofficially designated smoking areas for employees at schools in places not visible to students, like a loading dock or a fenced-in space behind a school. It also allows workers to smoke in their cars.
Employees who work at the other district properties such as the district office, the facilities and maintenance center on Mobley Road, and the bus depot on California Street, have designated smoking areas.
Asked by board members if tobacco-using employees at schools are obeying the policy and staying out of sight, superintendent Bryan Blavatt said yes.
"As superintendent, I have not have massive difficulties with present tobacco use," said Blavatt, a cigar smoker. Blavatt has said he smokes only in his car and puts out the cigar when he gets to the district office, and he does not smoke in the designated area behind district headquarters.
Board member Dianne Bonfield was the lone dissenter to the informal consensus, arguing that the district should go 100 percent tobacco free or at least ban smoking on school campuses.
"Why would we ever want to have smoking on any school property?" Bonfield asked. "Why would we not want to tighten this up?
She advocated adopting a tobacco-free policy but delaying enforcement to allow employees time to quit.
The proposal came from the Tobacco Free Hernando Partnership, an initiative funded by the Department of Health's Bureau of Tobacco. In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law amending the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act to give school boards the authority to designate all district property as tobacco-free. Since then, partnerships throughout the state have ramped up efforts to get school boards to approve a comprehensive tobacco-free policy.
The board did agree to take advantage of the partnership's smoking cessation programs. The offerings include free individual counseling and group classes, as well as aids such as nicotine patches and gum, said Ann-Gayl Ellis, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Health Department.
"This is a step in the right direction," Ellis said after the workshop.
Taking away the tree-shaded picnic bench that serves as the bus depot's designated smoking area would have angered a lot of employees, said district transportation director Linda Smith.
"I would have had to put the new policy in their mailboxes and run," Smith said with a laugh.
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In other action, the board decided to reject the counteroffer of its prospective in-house attorney and re-advertise the position.
Brian Moes, an Orlando attorney who most recently served as deputy general counsel for the Orange County School District, sought an additional $5,000, which would have brought his annual salary to $110,000. Moes also asked to work a four-day work week, at least temporarily, until he decided whether to relocate.
More troubling to a majority of board members, though, was a lingering unease about interviewing just one candidate for the position. Moes was one of two finalists, but the other dropped out. The board was generally impressed by Moes and agreed to enter negotiations.
Foreman, the recently-appointed fifth member who was not on the board at the time, said the district was offering a higher salary than necessary.
"We're bidding against ourselves," said Foreman, an attorney for the Hogan Law Firm in Brooksville. "The market for attorneys at this point is such that competent, highly educated people with amazing qualifications are available at, quite frankly, rock bottom prices."
The board should at least counter Moes' proposal, Bonfield argued. Moes can reapply, Foreman said.
Though the board has been represented for the last several years by an in-house attorney, a majority of members also agreed Tuesday to consider applications from firms seeking to work as outside counsel, then compare the costs.
The Hogan Law Firm, which is counsel for the city of Brooksville, would not be bidding for the job, Foreman said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.