Wake County public middle and high school students will skip a statewide tobacco-use survey this year for the first time since 1999. And county commissioners, irate over of the loss of data about an important health risk, are calling school board members to a special meeting on the matter.
Wake County Board of Commissioners chairman Sig Hutchinson said Thursday that he intended to take the matter up at a work session Monday. However, Board of Education Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler and Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner, who were invited to attend, will be at a state school board association meeting in Greensboro, according to a WCPSS spokesman.
“I’m going to be talking about it on Monday, but the school system will be another time,” Hutchinson said Thursday afternoon.
Earlier, Hutchinson told the INDY, “WCPSS says they’re not going to do it this year,” Hutchinson says. “They’re telling me it takes away from instructional time. This would do away with trend data they’ve collected since 1999, and it involves the state data because Wake County students are one-tenth of the students in North Carolina.”
The controversy over the skipped survey test comes at a time when the county’s two governing boards are attempting to heal wounds incurred during the budget battle that ended in June.
The state Youth Tobacco Survey, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, “provides a critical source of public health data for understanding the scope of the tobacco problem and measuring progress toward overall goals among youth.”
Brad McMillen, WCPSS assistant superintendent of data, research, and accountability, called the Tobacco Youth Survey a “pretty heavy lift” at a time when schools are under the gun to produce results.
“The TYS is a pretty big footprint,” he said. “It involves twenty-two middle and high schools in the sample this year, and eighty to a hundred students per school.”
Because the test is designed to produce statewide data, Wake doesn’t receive school- or system-specific results, McMillen said. “The schools don’t see it as being beneficial,” he said.
In an email to Hutchinson, Kushner emphasized that the system is a strong supporter of the American Heart Association and that students have raised more than $500,000 annually for the cause during the past several years.
“Our schools already participate in numerous surveys, and staff receive hundreds of requests for similar research,” Kushner wrote October 30. “Each request seems needed on its own, but cumulatively, surveying leads to a loss of instructional time, so each request is reviewed by staff for a decision.”
The American Heart Association’s representative at the General Assembly is urging the schools to take part. A representative is expected to speak to attendees at Monday’s work session.
“Wake County contains approximately 10% of North Carolina’s population, and therefore accounts for approximately 10% of the NC Youth Tobacco Survey (YTS) sample,” Betsy Vetter, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association, said in an email to Hutchinson. “It is also one of just six urban counties in the state, so it is critical that this demographic be represented in the survey. Without participation from Wake County, the 2017 YTS survey results will be invalidated.”
In March, state Representative Sam Watford, a Thomasville Republican, introduced HB 276, called “Strengthen Tobacco Use Prevention Funds.” Now in a House health committee, it would require the state to spend $17 million a year on tobacco education. Some data that were used to try to convince legislators about the need for the bill came from the Youth Tobacco Survey.
Under Watford’s bill, the funds would come from the $140 million North Carolina receives annually from the federal Master Settlement Agreement, paid by the tobacco companies and intended to fund tobacco education.
Hutchinson says WCPSS’s decision not to take part in the survey is particularly frustrating because the Board of Commissioners wants to improve children’s overall health across Wake County. Commissioners have voted to spend a million dollars over three years on anti-smoking programs in Wake.
Hutchinson says that supporting whole-child health could mean shared facilities between the county and the school system, encouraging consumption of healthy foods, establishing safe routes to schools, and working to provide free or reduced fares for students on public transportation.
“Finally, as we work to improve relations with our boards, my hope is that the WCPSS will help support Wake County’s strategic plan of reducing tobacco use, especially with young people, as we work to support your strategic plan,” Hutchinson said in a email Monday to fellow commissioners, school board members, and administrators.
The latest survey will give health officials a line on how vaping has affected students’ tobacco use.