LAND O’ LAKES — A Pasco County school district effort to hire only non-tobacco users for its food and nutrition services department didn’t work out as well as officials hoped.
The tobacco-screening policy, begun two years ago, proved a hindrance in hiring and the department decided to discontinue it, Kevin Shibley, the school district’s executive director for administration, told the school board this week.
That was a disappointment for school board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong, who wanted to see the policy expanded to other departments.
“I’m just looking at whether there is any way we could beef up our no-smoking policy,” Armstrong said at a Tuesday board workshop.
She said it “sends a poor message to students” when school employees smoke and she suggested Pasco’s non-smoking policy is weak compared to other school districts.
“We are not being very pro-active at all,” Armstrong said.
The food and nutrition services department announced in August 2011 that it was beginning a pilot program to screen out tobacco users in the hiring process. School district and health department officials said tobacco-free work sites can help cut health care costs, among other potential benefits.
Even with the screening, no follow-up efforts happened to make sure the new employees didn’t take up the tobacco habit.
“We would hire non-smokers, but they didn’t have to stay tobacco free,” Julie Hedine, director of food and nutrition services, said Thursday. “We weren’t really reaping the benefits of it we hoped to.”
The department’s hiring policy was supposed to be a pilot program that could spread to other departments, but it “wasn’t really moving forward anywhere with other departments,” she said.
Food and nutrition services always starts the school year with a number of job openings to fill, and the tobacco-free screening just added to that problem, with some people electing not to come in to finish the application once they were told of the policy, Hedine said.
Even with the difficulties, the idea was a good one, she said.
“I still firmly believe that’s the right thing to do and the direction we need to move,” Hedine said.
The school district isn’t giving up on battling tobacco.
If it’s a priority for Superintendent Kurt Browning and the school board, the district could look at ways to make it easier for schools to become smoke free, even if employees continue to smoke elsewhere on their own time, Shibley said.
Right now, all Pasco public schools built since 1996 are tobacco-free campuses. The school district’s contract with United School Employees of Pasco specifies that schools in existence before July 1, 1996, must have outdoor smoking areas for employees, shielded from student view.
To convert one of those schools to a tobacco-free policy requires a 100 percent vote of the faculty and staff.
“Maybe we could negotiate to reduce that threshold,” Shibley said.