QUESTION: Is it legal for a school board member, or his/her companies, to donate to the prize packages for the Alamance-Burlington Teacher of the Year and other school functions? It sounds like an idea to get votes and name recognition at election time – and a potential conflict of interest.
ANSWER: It might not look good, but it’s perfectly legal, for elected and/or appointed officials to donate money and other gifts to the organizations they represent, according to a local government expert.
Frayda Bluestein, an expert in local government and conflicts of interest, outlines exactly “when it is a blessing to give and to receive, and when it is illegal” in an analysis for the School of Government at UNC.
“Board members, and supervisors or other employees, are free to give gifts to each other using their own private funds. Many practical questions may make this a bad idea – jealousy, perceptions of favoritism, and so on – but it is not illegal.” – Frayda Bluestein, an expert in local government and conflicts of interest at the School of Government at UNC
“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.”
The employers of and/or companies owned by three school board members – chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and board members Ryan Bowden and Chuck Marsh – have each donated money to the “Evening of Excellence” event, scheduled for this evening at Southern High School, where the ABSS Teacher of the Year and other award winners will be bestowed with cash and other prizes.
Ellington-Graves is a realtor with Allen Tate Realtors in Burlington, which has donated gifts, valued at a total of $1,800 (or $100 each) to 18 ABSS high school students who have been selected as Superintendent’s Award of Excellence winners, who will also be honored tonight. (No specific description was given when the donation was announced during the school board’s meeting Monday night.)
In addition to his job as a firefighter with the city of Greensboro, Bowden owns Sunset Slush of Alamance County, a local franchise of a mobile ice cream vendor, which has donated an unspecified “gift for all nominees,” valued at $400, as it was described to school board members Monday night.
Marsh is the owner of Maverick Radio and Hope Radio, which contributed $1,000 each in monetary donations “to cover the Teacher of the Year” awards, based on a description to the board.
Overall, more than two dozen individuals and businesses in Alamance County have contributed a grand total of $31,835 in monetary donations, gift certificates, and prize packages for ABSS employees and students who will be honored tonight at the Evening of Excellence event.
Earlier this year, ABSS officials announced that the Sunset Slush franchise Bowden owns would be sponsoring a “Staff Appreciation Night,” offering every ABSS employee a free ticket to the Burlington Sock Puppets game on June 14, as well as all-you-can-eat vouchers for the concession stand for the first 150 ABSS employees who enter the gate that night.
While he was running as a candidate for the school board last fall, Marsh’s station Maverick Radio also raised money to cover the costs for travel and other expenses for the Cummings High School marching band to perform at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on December 31.
“Our station is asking local businesses to sponsor an hour of giving,” Marsh explained at the time in a post on his campaign Facebook page. “Meaning: Your business might match listeners giving dollar for dollar for that hour up to your comfort level. It might sound like this…Dale’s towing is matching your giving up to $500 this hour. If it falls short, your business would write a check for what was raised or you could still do the $500. It makes people feel good if their $50 of giving turns in to $100.”
Marsh also held a “Support Chuck Marsh for ABSS School Board” raffle in the run-up to the November 2022 general election, offering ticket buyers a “top secret prize worth over $1,000 retail,” a second prize of $250 cash, and a third prize of $100 cash, according to his campaign Facebook page. [The winners were: Tony Ambrose ($1,000); Shelby Kernodle ($250); and Todd Justice ($100), according to a message posted November 26, 2022 on Marsh’s campaign Facebook page.]
Gifts that carry a nominal cash value (such as food or plaques in recognition of service) generally don’t run afoul of North Carolina law – but gifts of cash and real property present a much thornier dilemma, based on Bluestein’s interpretation of state laws that govern gifts to and from local governments.
State law generally doesn’t prohibit businesses and individuals from giving gifts to public officials or local governments – providing they have no present, past, or anticipated business (contractual) relationship with a local unit of government (to include public school systems), Bluestein wrote for the School of Government.
State law also prohibits local governments and public officials from accepting gifts that have more than a nominal value from businesses and individuals they contract with, according to Bluestein. Most violations are classified as a misdemeanor offense for both the donor and recipient.
“These rules about gift giving go beyond etiquette and public perception,” Bluestein explained. “Public officials must strike a balance between the laudable desire to acknowledge and reward public service and dedication, on the one hand, and the obligation to comply with state laws that are designed to promote the general public interest.”
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