Superintendent Kurt Browning wants to see all Pasco County schools and other properties go tobacco-free.
School District policy already requires it, except for an exemption set forth in its teacher contract. And that hole is a big one.
The contract allows tobacco use at all schools and work sites opened before July 1, 1996 — that's well over half of them — unless the staff unanimously agrees to ban it. Neither the district nor the United School Employees of Pasco have records of any staff votes occurring during the 18 years the provision has been in effect.
Browning said he didn't understand how the district could justify allowing a single employee to dictate a school's tobacco policy. "Hopefully we can get things worked out."
His administration plans to propose amending the contract to mirror district policy, which states, "Smoking and the use of all tobacco products are prohibited by law inside all Board facilities and in all 'common areas.' "
Both Pinellas and Hillsborough schools already have such a full ban in place. Hernando schools ban tobacco use in areas used by students or designated for student activities.
Pasco's contract exemption would disappear, if the USEP would agree.
A deal is far from guaranteed, though.
USEP leaders, who refused to discuss this idea when first approached last fall, have expressed dismay in recent weeks at the district's requests for employees to give up existing rights for little to nothing in return. Beyond this request to end smoking where it's currently allowed, the administration also has asked teachers to relinquish the right to transfer jobs during the school year.
"The district so far is coming to us with what we consider significant givebacks, without providing anything that appears a beneficial trade-off," union lead negotiator Jim Ciadella said.
Further complicating matters, Browning and his leadership team have taken great offense to USEP president Kenny Blankenship's recent comments accusing the administration of being unapproachable and disrespectful toward teachers.
Browning responded by remarking that the USEP "does not run the district."
That tension threatens to affect whether the sides approach contract talks, which resume Monday for school-related personnel, as collaborators or adversaries.
Ciadella acknowledged that agreements require compromise. But he stressed that the USEP does not intend to give without getting.
The tobacco use rules are likely to be caught up in this give and take, despite the recognized health benefits of going tobacco-free.
A USEP member survey indicated mixed views about changing the rule, with about 40 percent favoring the ban, 35 percent backing the contract exemption and the rest ambivalent, Ciadella said.
"They tell us even if they personally smoke or not — and most do not — they feel it is a person's right to smoke," he said, noting that it's not against any law and that employees do not smoke in front of students.
Taking away the contractual provision, he added, could represent the beginning of a never-ending effort to dictate lifestyle decisions.
"Do you restrict overweight people from doing certain things?" Ciadella said. "Where does it end?"
Employee relations director Betsy Kuhn dismissed the slippery slope argument, saying the district simply wants to improve work and education conditions. Smoking affects the environment for students and other non-smokers, she said, just as keeping teachers in the same classroom for a full year maintains instructional consistency for students and educators.
"I think we're asking for things for a good reason, not to be harsher," Kuhn said. "We're really trying to work with them on some proposals."
The antitobacco proposal is set to come to the school-related personnel Monday and to teachers on Tuesday, when the sides also will begin talking about financial issues, including raises.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.