Time for tobacco testing to go

In recent years, state and national education policy-makers have placed too much emphasis on testing, testing, testing. Wisely, the USD 408 school board is considering cutting one type of testing that is under its control: random drug testing for nicotine.

Make no mistake, tobacco use is a harmful, dangerous habit that we should discourage teenagers from picking up. Fortunately, for whatever reason — higher taxes on cigarettes, better education about the awareness of smoking, or some other reason — smoking among teenagers has been declining. A 2012 survey of 45,000 teenagers showed 10.6 percent were smokers, a record low.

Random drug testing results at the middle and high school show an even lower rate of tobacco use locally. Of about 200 random drug tests this school year, 15 were positive for nicotine. It would be good to get that number even lower, but continued testing isn’t likely to accomplish that.

Meanwhile, the school district is facing declining enrollment, stagnant state aid, and increasing insurance costs. The school board is going to have to find ways to cope with that reality, and it is almost certainly going to have to make some unpopular decisions, either increasing taxes, cutting programs, or both.

Cutting testing for nicotine is one change the district can make with minimal harm. The supplies for nicotine testing are separate from the supplies for testing for marijuana, methamphetamines, and other hard drugs, so the district could continue to test for those drugs — which recent arrests convince me the school should continue.

Stopping testing for nicotine won’t save a lot of money relative to the budget crunch the school is facing. The 15 positive tests that had to be sent to a lab for verification this year cost the school $750 total. That isn’t enough to save a valuable, popular, but ultimately optional program if the district has to make major cuts. Belt-tightening is going to take more than $750 here and $1,000 there. That is like searching your couch cushions for grocery money.

It is, however, an almost completely harmless cut the district could make when there are so few harmless cuts that can be made. It might buoy a line item for classroom supplies, or it could mean the difference between presenting a popular play or musical or one that is second-rate.

There is no relief in sight, either from the state or enrollment declines. Every little bit is going to count.

— ADAM STEWART

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