Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Ken and Lu

On the whole, we don’t begrudge anyone, the deserving or the undeserving, a well- paying new job in these parlous economic times. We only trust that it was not achieved at our — that is, the public’s — expense.

Yesterday brought news that two of Arkansas’ top school administrators had landed new jobs in the private sector. It was not clear that it was a step up financially for either man, each of whom was making a quarter of a million dollars a year, but the posts were clearly lucrative and far less demanding than their old jobs laboring for the Arkansas taxpayers.

Lu Hardin, the embattled former president of the University of Central Arkansas, whose public tenure is still the subject of a criminal investigation, today becomes president of Palm Beach Atlantic University in Palm Beach, Fla. It describes itself as a Christian college dedicated to teaching the liberal arts from a “Christ-based” vantage point. The chairman of the Board of Trustees described its new president as “ a person of great character and ability as well as a man of great faith.”

Ken James, who a month ago had announced his resignation effective July 1 as director of the state Department of Education, becomes the chief operating officer of America’s Choice, a private company that has enjoyed some $24 million in contracts with the Department of Education since James became the director.

There is no evidence and indeed no suspicion as far as we know that the consulting contracts and James’ new job were linked in any way. But the circumstance on its face is troubling, which is why the revolving door is often prohibited by law. Not in Arkansas, unless it is demonstrated convincingly that a new job is somehow contingent upon the business that the public administrator and the company have conducted in the past.

In the analogy above, Hardin would be the undeserving and James the deserving candidate for promotion or an easier style of living. Lu Hardin had his formidable qualities — raising money, championing higher athletic goals, promoting the school (and, even more formidably, himself), but his lies, deceptions, greed and overweening ambition cost the university dearly. It will take the school years to overcome his legacy. But the modest religious school in Palm Beach apparently knew what it was getting.

Hardin’s old friend and boss, Rush Harding III, the chairman of UCA’s board of trustees, said he told the search team in Florida everything that Hardin had done, the evil as well as the positive. The good regents there thought his beneficial qualities were exactly what the school needed. (It is a struggling NCAA Division II school athletically and it may have loftier ambitions for the Palm Beach Sailfish. Hardin got the UCA Bears into Division I, although it took lots of money and some tricky and perhaps illegal accounting to get it done.)

James, on the other hand, has distinguished himself as superintendent of Little Rock schools and as the state’s chief school officer. He has fewer detractors than almost anyone in high office in Arkansas. He was an architect of the late school financial reforms that resolved the longstanding Lakeview school equity case. The governor, lawmakers, school administrators and union representatives all sing his praises as a leader of uncommon intelligence and ability. Who could begrudge him a time to relax in the comfort of a corner of the private sector where competition barely exists?

But the sour taste of this arrangement is inescapable. When James announced he was leaving as director of the Education Department to explore other careers, which he did not identify, his reticence had a reason. It would have the appearance of quid pro quo. For four years, America’s Choice has gotten a contract from the department in the neighborhood of $6 million a year to supply consulting and training for school districts that are in distress owing to their financial condition and low student achievement. Even if there was not an employment deal — and we are quite confident there was not — it does not look good to the public that the official has served.

This has been a common occurrence in Arkansas government. State utility and in-surance commissioners and attorneys leave their state positions to take good jobs for the industries that they have been oh so gingerly regulating. Term-limited legislators take jobs lobbying for industries and trade groups that they have favored with their votes on legislation. Progressive states have imposed a prohibition of one to three years on the revolving door to eliminate the temptation and the appearance of back scratching.

It would have imposed a hardship on Ken James, but his sterling reputation would have been intact.

—Ernie Dumas