School Board Fiddles While The Students' Lungs Burn

THE OBSERVER

June 16, 1991|By Mark Guidera

Call me silly. Call me old-fashioned. But can't we get the school board to take clear, firm stand on anything anymore?

Why do they always have to ride the proverbial fence on issues that may prove contentious?

The latest fence-riding comes on the issue of banning smoking in school buildings so your kids won't have their lungs subject to the torture of teachers' and other school employees' second-hand smoke.

Last week a group of Fallston High students had the chutzpah to ask the the school board to ban smoking completely in all public schools by the start of the next school year in September.

The students took their request to the county school board last week at the monthly public meeting.

The kids presented some compelling arguments. Mainly, they are worried about the so-called effects of second-hand smoke.

The American Cancer Society and just about every straight-speaking doctor in the free world will tell you the stuff can cause cancer,not to mention more than a few other troublesome ailments.

That'swhy most major corporations and governments have already banned smoking.

But the school board, it seems, won't take the helm on the issue. They want to slough it off on the people who will broker the next work contracts with school employees.

After the meeting, when asked by a reporter their thoughts on the request, most board members said that banning smoking seemed a reasonable and admirable goal they would support.

Then there came the big "But . . ."

It's a matter that is out of their hands until contract negotiations start with school employees in November, they said. And even then they didn't seem willing to lend muscle to the issue.

Said school board member Ronald Eaton: "I'll accept whatever is the outcome of contract negotiations."

And board member Anne D. Sterling said she favors negotiations about a ban, but warned the board may have to give something up to get school employees to go along.

"We will have to pay for it," she said.

To which I say: Bullfeathers!

The only thing they have to give up is a mannerly worded letter sent to all school employeesstating that come school in September plan on lighting up on break-time outside school buildings.

Christine Haggett, the president of the Harford County Education Association, which is the bargaining agent for 1,500 school employees, admits there is no specific language in the current work contract which guarantees school employees the right to smoke in school buildings.

In fact, the contract states thatall parties should work toward a healthy environment.

To me that means one thing: There is no legal impediment to declaring smoking banned in schools immediately.

But there is a moral obligation to doso.

Instead of waffling, let's get on with it. The school board should take the moral high ground here, even though it will surely cast them as villains in some smokers' eyes.

Taking a stand that is right and for the general good is what we are called to do when we arein positions of public service and trust.

It is simple work, guysand gals.

Pen the memo and do it post-haste.

Larry Klimovitz, the county executive's director of administration, did just that in April with little fanfare.

As Klimovitz recalls it, he first met with the new cabinet and discussed a straight-out ban on smoking in public buildings. He included in his pitch the scary evidence from the American Cancer Society on the bad health effects of second-hand smokeon non-smokers.

Klimovitz did not approach any of the county government unions about brokering a deal on the issue.

Instead, he laid down the hammer, as they say.

On Jan. 2 a memo went out to county employees that said a new day has dawned. Smoking is banned in all county government buildings. The ban did not extend to school property because that -- unfortunately in this case -- is under the purview of the school board.

Said Klimovitz, "We did it to protect the public's health in those buildings, as well as the workers," The reaction, says Klimovitz was a bit surprising.

There were no demonstrations or petitions. There was compliance.

Which is exactly what the school board would get if they took a firm stand and did the deed.

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