Gov. Mike Huckabee wanted Ken James, the job-hopping former Little Rock school superintendent, to be the new director of the state Education Department. That meant matching his $195,000 base pay in Lexington, Ky.
Fine. Arkansas should pay James what the market demands and the legislature should act quickly to do it legally. Otherwise, he’ll be working under an arrangement riddled with legal questions and shrouded in secrecy.
The state Constitution prohibits payment to public officials in excess of appropriations – currently $119,700 for the education director. Huckabee claims he has obtained, but has not released, a legal opinion that it is legal to pay James more through a consulting arrangement with the state Board of Higher Education Foundation. A legislative authority also says that the consulting deal is legal because it’s pay for work rendered separately from the public job.
This is hogwash. James was hired to be state education director. His alleged separate job – developing a strategy for a “seamless” pre-kindergarten through college public education system – is part of the same job. Do you really think he’s going to be working half-time as state education director?
Worse is the secrecy. The foundation is called private and thus not subject to public disclosure. More hogwash. A public employee, the head of the Higher Education Department, was called forward by the governor when James’ hiring was announced to explain how the deal with the foundation would work. She acknowledged later to me that her staff – public employees – have maintained paperwork on the foundation in recent years. Public officials worked on the terms of James’ contract, a foundation officer told me. Huckabee, a public official, said he would help raise money for contributions to pay James.
The work of public employees on the foundation’s business means it is covered by the state Freedom of Information Act. We’ve been down this legal road before with the Razorback Foundation at the University of Arkansas.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, generally a bulldog on FOI matters, is silent this time, save its editorial cheerleading for James. Its publisher, Walter Hussman, was among the crowd on hand at the Governor’s Mansion to view the rubber-stamping of James’ appointment at an illegal meeting of the state Board of Education. (It was illegal because, despite the Times’ request for notice of board meetings, we received none.)
What is the harm in being open about the James deal? Hussman, in declining to say if he’d be a contributor, told his newspaper that it could compromise James if he knew who was paying part of his salary. No further compromising is necessary. Hussman was at the Mansion because James endorses the test-happy approach to school “reform” that Hussman favors. Hussman, along with the Walton and Stephens tycoons who control most of the rest of the daily newspaper circulation in Arkansas, have already thrown money behind the testing initiative.
It’s a reasonable bet that the publishers will open their wallets again for the cause. Just don’t expect them to spend any money challenging the little scheme to keep the public from knowing the details of how a public official gets paid.