Friday, June 14, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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A slushy slope toward a conflict of interest

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We really don’t mean to be picking on school board member Ryan Bowden, but it just seems that he continues to be at the forefront of controversial issues, and questionable ethics, as a member of the Alamance-Burlington board of education.

We filed a public records request earlier this week with school superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, seeking to find any correspondence regarding “any ‘licensing agreement,’ contract, memorandum of understanding, or other arrangement(s), with or without charge, that allows . . . Sunset Slush to operate on ABSS grounds at various high schools or other locations during any ABSS athletic events or other ABSS event(s), including open houses or back-to-school events.”

Bowden is a firefighter in Greensboro by day, but he operates as a sort of side hustle an Italian ice concession in a food truck which he’s been known to take around to various schools where he sells his icy,  slushy products.

Our public records request continued, “Inasmuch as this company appears to be owned and/or operated by a school board member, Ryan Bowden, we would also like to examine and inspect any documents you may have received providing a legal assessment made by the Institute of Government or any other person or organization that concludes that such an arrangement(s) is allowed despite or pursuant to N.C.G.S. Section 14-234, Public officers or employees benefiting from public contracts; exceptions.”

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In general, that statute says that public officials should not stand to benefit financially from their service on public bodies.

We also asked, “Are there any other vendors who have been allowed to set up operations on school grounds?  Under what statutory authority are these vendors, or Sunset Slush, allowed to operate on public school grounds?”

We got back a prompt, but very inadequate, response from the school system’s public information officer Les Atkins, “There are no records in our system of checks written to or any such vendor information for Sunset Slush,” he wrote back in an email about an hour-and-a-half after our own emailed inquiry to the superintendent.

Atkins went on to say, “It is our understanding many vendors such as this are hired/retained by PTOs, Booster Clubs, etc.  Booster Clubs and PTOs are nonprofit organizations that act independently.  They have their own Board of Directors and Officers. “

While we appreciate Atkins’ attempt at responding quickly, we think he or the superintendent might want to consult with the Attorney General’s office, or even the school system’s own attorney, since we very much doubt that PTOs and booster clubs have unilateral (“independent,” in Atkins’ description) authority to just invite vendors of their choosing onto public school grounds without any limitation, insurance provisions, liability waivers, etc.

Otherwise, the school system itself is likely liable.

We think it highly suspect that Bowden is repeatedly allowed to bring his business onto school grounds, when we’re not at all confident that the same openness and flexibility is offered so freely for other private sector vendors. (We acknowledge that it is not clear whether Bowden always charges for his products, but even if not, it still represents a questionable practice.)

Nor do we think it appropriate for the school system to attempt a subtle (even if subliminal) boost of Bowden’s business by including photos on its website of students in front of Bowden’s slushy truck, as is currently on the ABSS website. [See adjacent photos from ABSS website.]

These examples add to our unease and the sense that Bowden is either overtly soliciting such favorable PR treatment or it is being granted preemptively by school officials.  (By way of comparison, we could find no other photo anywhere on the ABSS website with students standing in front of any other business’ logo, but there are at least two in front of Bowden’s.  We’re sure ABSS and Bowden would say that’s sheer coincidence.)

The newspaper has received numerous questions about Bowden’s side business, and his seemingly ongoing efforts to promote it during his service on the school board.

An astute reader submitted a Public Asks question earlier this year questioning whether it was appropriate for several school board members to be donating to the prize package for the ABSS teacher of the year at a banquet honoring the school system’s top teachers and contenders for the honored top spot.

Specifically, questions involved Bowden’s Sunset Slush (which donated $400 worth of merchandise to the teacher of the year); school board member Chuck Marsh whose two local radio stations donated $1,000 each to the same cause; and board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, a local realtor, whose company provided $100 to each of 18 students designated as the Superintendent’s Award of Excellence winners, which was also part of the Evening of Excellence held earlier this year.

The interpretation of the legal answer that the newspaper received, and quoted in the article, from Frayda Bluestein, an expert in local government and conflicts of interest, said that the practice may not look good, but it was not illegal. “Board members, and supervisors or other employees, are free to give gifts to each other using their own private funds,” Bluestein explained. “Many practical questions may make this a bad idea – jealousy, perceptions of favoritism, and so on – but it is not illegal,” she elaborated.

Despite Bluestein (mostly) absolving Bowden and his fellow board members from a legal infringement, Bowden and Marsh took to their social media accounts to whine about the newspaper for having dared to look into the reader’s question of a potential conflict of interest.

Another expert the newspaper consulted, Crista Cuccaro also at the School of Government, used another term, “self-benefitting,” that should be avoided, although she, too, acknowledged that state law does not appear to prohibit a gift to the school system.

We didn’t say so at the time of the initial Public Asks question, but we would observe what we consider a rather significant distinction between the donations made by Ellington-Graves vs. Bowden and Marsh.

Elllington-Graves has had a long history of donating funds to the school system, pre-dating her election in 2020.

However, Bowden and Marsh only began contributing after their respective elections, in 2020 and 2022.

Thus, the appearance that the two late-comers hoped somehow to benefit, whether financially or simply from a public relations viewpoint, is difficult to avoid, which we suspect was part of the reason for the Public Asks question in the first place.

At any rate, as we’ve emphasized before, we believe public officials need to be especially careful not to, and not to appear to, aggrandize themselves or their finances by their service on public boards.

In this case, it’s also the school system itself that also needs to be careful not to be seen as trying to curry favor with Bowden by allowing his business special access to ABSS property – or by promoting his company on its website.

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