District: Fort Smith school employees in a school board member’s radio ad not a conflict

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,150 views 

The Fort Smith Public School administration and its attorney see no conflict of interest in a radio advertisement that includes school employees promoting a business owned by a school board member.

While a short advertisement spot raises a question about the proper relationship between a business and school employees, FSPS says they have talked with its “attorney and do not believe there is anything actionable,” according to an email from Zena Featherston-Marshall, executive director of communication and community partnerships for the district.

The radio spot has Ricky Smith, head basketball coach for Northside High School’s ladies’ basketball, and Eric Burnett, NHS head basketball coach, saying when it comes to heat and air needs, they call “782-8940,” which is the number for Blaylock Heating and Air Conditioning. Matt Blaylock is president of Blaylock Heating and Air Conditioning and is a member of the school board, serving his second year on the board.

The question is whether using FSPS school employees in an advertisement for a board member’s personal business would be considered a conflict of interest. The district’s board governance policies do not specifically address conflicts of interest. They address how a board member should recuse from a vote if there is a conflict, and they address nepotism.

However, in July the school board passed a motion to limit staff interaction with Turn Key Construction because it is involved with the district’s Peak Innovation Center. School Board President Dee Blackwell introduced the action “given the intersection of the recent flood at the Peak Center and the election of the Peak Center contractor’s principal to the Board of Education.” Sandy Dixon, who was elected to the board in May, is president and owner of Turn Key. Turn Key was the construction manager in charge of the first stage of the Peak Innovation Center construction project, which was completed in the spring.

Blaylock said he had never thought about whether the radio ad was a conflict of interest.

“Those ads predated me being involved with the school district as a board member. All of those individuals are also customers, and they were before I was a school board member,” Blaylock said.

Blaylock said the coaches in the ad were not paid for their “endorsements” and the advertisement can only loosely be considered an endorsement because the coaches are not telling listeners to call but rather who they call. But he agreed there could be an impression of conflict when asked if using school employees in an ad might give a board member’s business an advantage.

“I do agree it is a little different scenario than just being an average taxpayer/stakeholder within the district,” Blaylock said. “I can tell you that the purpose of the ads is to shine a spotlight on Fort Smith Public Schools, specifically Northside High School athletics and support them. It is not to try to solicit more business.”

Blaylock said after consultation, including with the majority owner of the company, they decided to continue using the ads since they were running prior to his position of being on the board, and the intended purpose of ads.