Lawrence school board agrees to support city raising age to buy tobacco

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence Public Schools district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.

The Lawrence school board agreed Monday to support a measure that would raise the age to purchase tobacco products in the city from 18 to 21.

Vicki Collie-Akers, chair of the LiveWell Douglas County Tobacco 21 work group and associate director of health promotion research at the University of Kansas, asked the board to support the Lawrence City Commission enacting the Tobacco 21 Initiative. The commission will consider the initiative on Oct. 9, she said.

In the United States, 300 municipalities — 21 in Kansas — have enacted similar laws, Collie-Akers said.

“We feel it would be a benefit to have a signed letter to the City Commission from the largest youth organization in the city with firsthand experience with the problem,” she said.

Denise Johnson, district assistant director of health and research, said passage of the initiative in Lawrence would help end the practice of friends from 18 to 21 years of age buying tobacco products for younger students. There would be less likelihood that high school students would have access to tobacco products if that “social supply chain” was ended, she said.

The measure also raises to 21 the age of buying electronic cigarettes or vaping products because the liquids smoked through the devices contain nicotine, Collie-Akers said.

Free State High School senior Ruth Gathunguri, who is a member of Boys & Girls Club anti-smoking Resist team, said many of the students at her high school were vaping. It was not unusual to see students vaping in restrooms, hallways or parking lots, she said.

Collie-Akers said the only legal challenge to the 300 Tobacco 21 initiatives that have passed was in Topeka. That city’s ordinance was overturned in court. She said she predicts that the Kansas Supreme Court would rule that cities had the home rule authority to raise the age to purchase tobacco products.

After the board reached consensus agreement to support the initiative, Board President Jessica Beeson said she would draft a letter advocating for the age change before the City Commission’s Oct. 9 meeting.

Collie-Akers and Gathunguri said they would attend Wednesday’s Douglas County Commission meeting to request the county enact the Tobacco 21 initiative in the unincorporated areas of the county.

In other business, the status of the district’s negotiations with the teachers union wasn’t on the board’s agenda Monday, but it was on the minds of the audience and board members. Earlier this month, negotiations between the district and Lawrence Education Association broke down with the district announcing its intention to seek U.S. Department of Labor mediation to resolve differences. The union is asking for a $2,200 increase in base pay, and the district is offering a $500 increase.

Leslie Downing, kindergarten teacher at Langston Hughes Elementary, and district parents Connie Grimes and Amy Phalen addressed the board, asking the board to make compensating teachers and paraprofessionals a priority. Downing said teachers made their jobs of educating district students a priority by spending their own money on classroom supplies and in working more than their required eight-hour days to plan and prepare for classroom instruction.

Beeson and board members G.R. Gordon-Ross and Shannon Kimball responded to email allegations they received, stating that the board was putting large amounts of money in savings rather than provide a larger raise to teachers. The board decided to spend $1.4 million from its contingency reserve in 2018-2019 rather than the $2.8 million spent the previous year, Ross said. The board did not have a choice because continued spending at last year’s rate would have exhausted the contingency fund, he said.

Kimball said the district spent down what was a healthy contingency reserve the past five years because some in the Kansas Legislature were threatening to sweep all such savings from local districts.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misidentified Amy Phalen.


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