NEW PORT RICHEY — For decades, teachers and staffers at Pasco County's Ridgewood High School could take a smoke break in a tarp-covered, wood-fenced shack at the property's edge.
"Today is the beginning of a new era … a cleaner, safer, healthier era," superintendent Kurt Browning declared Friday, standing before a wheel loader poised to knock down the school's "smoking shack."
"We want a healthy workforce."
Friday marked the symbolic start of a long-planned rule banning tobacco from all school district properties.
District leaders started talking about ways to eliminate tobacco from the county's campuses in 2011, when then-superintendent Heather Fiorentino pondered a ban on hiring smokers. After that idea faltered, officials focused their attention on banning smoking and other tobacco use from all district properties.
Browning pushed the idea in 2014 contract negotiations, with the support of students who called for the prohibition. After tense negotiations, the United School Employees of Pasco agreed to the change, with a two-year delay to give smokers a chance to adjust.
Before that agreement, the district's contract allowed tobacco use at all schools and work sites opened before July 1, 1996 — that's well over half of them — unless the staff unanimously agreed to ban it.
Neither the district nor the USEP had records of any staff votes occurring during the 20 years the provision was in effect.
The new rule took effect July 1. It was ushered in with Friday's shack razing, an act that will be repeated at other schools across Pasco over the next few weeks.
School Board member Cynthia Armstrong, who sits on the district health and wellness committee, praised the ban. She recalled teachers smoking in lounges inside schools when she taught in the late 1970s.
"We've come a long way, baby," Armstrong said, using the slogan from the old Virginia Slims cigarette ads.
Daniel Gonzalez, a county graduate, volunteered with Students Working Against Tobacco to pursue the ban. He attended Friday's event.
"Thank you to Pasco for finally setting a K-12 policy," Gonzalez said, smiling as the truck crushed the shack.
Catherine Tezber, principal's secretary at Ridgewood, said she quit smoking a few years ago after 40 years and hadn't gone to the shack in more than a decade.
She's glad she kicked the habit, she said. But she understands why some of her friends who smoke aren't happy.
"They should be able to smoke," she said. "They're adults."
That's unlikely to happen, though.
"It was not necessarily an easy change to come about," Browning said. "But at the end of the day, we realized it was the right change."
Pinellas and Hillsborough schools already have full tobacco bans in place at district facilities.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.