A public school system teaching children about the hazards of tobacco use shouldn't be providing opportunities for its own employees to puff cigarettes during the workday.
But that is the effect of an archaic contract stipulation between the Pasco School District and its unionized workers. It says employees working at schools built before 1996 must be provided an outdoor smoking area unless teachers and staff unanimously request a no-smoking designation. Meanwhile, the 33 schools opened since 1996 fall under a different, more sensible rule. They are smoke free.
The School District's wellness advisory committee — including School Board member Cynthia Armstrong, district and union representatives and 20 health-care professionals — is recommending a uniform no-smoking policy at every school. To do that, it wants schools to use a simple majority, not a unanimous vote, of staff members to determine the smoking status.
It's a smart suggestion and would eliminate the ridiculous scenarios around the county in which neighboring schools operate under different policies depending on their construction date. Employees of Weightman Middle School, for instance, can smoke in a designated smoking area while the staffs at Wesley Chapel high and elementary schools can not. Ditto in Land O'Lakes where, under the contract, Pineview Elementary should be smoke free while Pineview Middle School, directly across the street, is not.
There is little rationale for why the line in the sand was drawn in 1996, but the resulting contract language creates an open-ended policy in which a single employee at each of the 44 older schools in the district can maintain the status quo. A School District progressive enough to open on-site health clinics to cut medical expenses should be wise enough to adopt a policy to encourage employee wellness and to discourage the mixed message its sending to its own students.
But the district will need some help. The United School Employees of Pasco balked at the suggestion to negotiate new contract language and says the matter can wait until next summer. The lack of expediency is an expected negotiating tactic, but there are other considerations that should not be discounted. Namely, that cigarette smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and is responsible for an estimated 438,000 deaths per year, or about one of every five deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Likewise, citing a 2004 case study, the CDC said establishing a smoke-free campus at a work site that already prohibited indoor smoking was associated with an increase in the rate of employees who quit using tobacco while reducing cigarette consumption among workers who choose to continue smoking.
The advisory committee is right to try to change this goofy, inequitable policy that fails to encourage healthy habits for school employees. Union and district negotiators shouldn't stand in the way.