FAYETTEVILLE — The School District has launched an investigation into the high school basketball team’s involvement at a local political campaign event.
Officials said they began looking into the matter after questions over whether high school students had participated in team-organized neighborhood canvassing activities for Scott Berna, a candidate for City Council in Ward 3. Berna is challenging incumbent Sloan Scroggin, who is seeking a second term on the council.
Berna on Sept. 13 sent an email to Fayetteville High School head boy’s basketball coach Brad Stamps inviting the team to help with a door-hanging event on Sept. 24. In return, Berna said he would make a contribution to the team for their efforts.
Berna told Stamps he wanted to make sure both the students and parents knew exactly what he was requesting, and that helping with the “fundraising opportunity” should not be considered an endorsement.
“I would also request you give them an opt-out option in case their family has loyalty to my opponent Sloan Scroggin,” Berna wrote. “I certainly do not want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”
In his request, Berna said those participating should arrive at the Vandergriff Elementary School parking lot at 8:30 a.m. where they would be assigned to neighborhoods and given instructions on how to place door hangers at each home.
“In most case (sic) you would have little or no interaction with the public,” Berna wrote.
The following day, Stamps forwarded Berna’s email to parents from his school email account.
“Hello everyone, here is a request from a good friend of mine who is running for City Council,” Stamps wrote. “Obviously, I am gonna help him anyway I can, and he has extended this invitation as a fund-raising opportunity for our TEAM.”
Stamps asked the parents to reply individually with an email or text message so he could get a head count on how many people to expect at the campaign event.
Some parents replied and stated that their students would be at the event. One parent said they would be out of town that weekend and asked whether the “community service” could be made up on another day.
“There will be several other opportunities,” Stamps replied.
In another message to parents on Oct. 16, Stamps mentions a second door-hanging event when forwarding the upcoming week’s team schedule.
“We have another doorhanging event for Scott Berna Saturday morning and we have a landscape, repair, and mulch day Sunday at McNair Middle School,” Stamps wrote. “We will split our teams into 2 groups. Group 1 will work Saturday and Group 2 will work Sunday.”
District spokesman Alan Wilbourn said officials are aware that some students and staff members volunteered at a political campaign event, and that an email from a staff member invited them to the event.
“The matter is being investigated and addressed,” Wilbourn said in a statement. “We believe this was an isolated event caused by internal miscommunication. This action is not in line with our district policies. The School District does not endorse or oppose any political candidate or ballot issue.”
The emails were first requested by former City Council member Kyle Smith, who said he became curious about the school’s involvement after seeing a photo posted to Berna’s campaign Facebook page which shows Berna kneeling in front of a group of parents and students next to one of Berna’s campaign signs.
The photo has since been removed from the Facebook page, but it was sent to parents in an email from Stamps the morning after the event.
“Our first of several community service events was a huge success on Saturday morning,” Stamps wrote in a Sept. 25 email to parents. “Supporting a good friend, having donuts together, splitting up with staff members and players and walking the streets of our community together was a blast. I have attached the picture.”
Smith said seeing so many students wearing the high school’s team colors in the photos was what led him to seek District documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“When I saw the Berna campaign post pictures of their canvassing team, I knew that many kids don’t show up in coordinating outfits without some pre-planning,” Smith said. “I’ve seen contributions to teams on local candidate financial statements in the past, so I submitted my FOIA on a hunch.”
Smith said he has been volunteering to knock on doors for Scroggin in recent weeks, but he didn’t inform Scroggin of his records request until after it was submitted.
“I took this on as a concerned citizen reporting effort and did not coordinate with his campaign,” Smith said.
In a statement, Berna said when he realized he’d need help canvassing, it was a natural reaction to think of the high school because his two children played sports for Fayetteville Public Schools, and because he and his wife have supported the high school’s athletics programs in various ways for over 15 years.
“After understanding that this was a permissible use of campaign funds, according to the Arkansas Ethics Commission, as long as it is fully disclosed on the campaign expenditure report, then it was a no-brainer for me,” Berna said.
In a recent KUAF interview, Berna told reporter Matthew Moore that his campaign called the Arkansas Ethics Commission to ask whether it was permissible to seek help from the team and that the commission said “absolutely.” In the KUAF report, Moore asked commission director Graham Sloan if the Berna campaign had contacted him. Sloan said he’d not been contacted personally.
“This sounds like the kind of question that somebody would’ve run by me,” Sloan told KUAF. “I think that’s a gray enough area that I would be interested to know who he talked to because…that doesn’t sound like the answer we would’ve given.”
Berna acknowledged that he paid $1,000 to the boys booster club for their help at his canvassing event, and that he plans to include that transaction on his campaign expenditure report.
“Frankly, trying to make this an issue just before the election is nothing but a cheap smear tactic by cynical political opponents in an attempt to create the illusion of wrongdoing, when no wrong has been done and certainly nothing was done in secret,” Berna said. “I’ve ran a professional campaign and refuse to resort to dirty tricks and nasty politics.”
Scroggin said Friday while he didn’t know Smith planned to request the documents from the District, he did find the series of events concerning.
“When someone in a position of power – like a high school coach – asks their team to help volunteer, it could put those students in an uncomfortable situation,” Scroggin said. “At that point, it’s not really volunteering.”