Panel backs Arkansas legislator's wife for education post

A legislative panel on Tuesday signed off on the state Department of Higher Education’s plan to hire former Lee County School District Superintendent Willie Murdock — the wife of Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna — at an annual salary of $85,000, after two lawmakers raised questions about the proposal.

The Legislative Council’s personnel subcommittee approved the department’s plan to hire Murdock as the director of the Career Pathways program for a salary level that’s $7,138 above the $77,862 entry level pay. The Legislative Council will consider the subcommittee’s recommendation on Friday. The council usually follows the subcommittee’s recommendations.

The Career Pathways program seeks to improve the earnings of low-income recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families aid through postsecondary education attainment by enabling them to work in industries of regional importance, according to the Department of Higher Education’s website. The Career Pathways program is administered by the department with funding from the Department of Workforce Services. The program serves more than 4,000 students across the state, said Higher Education Director Maria Markham.

State law requires the prior approval of the governor and either the Joint Budget Committee during a legislative session or the Legislative Council in the interim for an agency to hire the spouse of a lawmaker at an annual salary above $37,649, said Kay Barnhill, the state’s personnel administrator.

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, approved the Department of Higher Education’s plan to hire Willie Murdock for $85,000 a year in a letter dated Aug. 4 to Department of Finance and Administration Director Larry Walther.

Willie Murdock worked for the Lee County School District from August 1995 through June 30 of this year and served as superintendent for the past five years. She was paid $95,000 a year and left because her contract wasn’t renewed by the School Board, according to her job application.

She listed Education Commissioner Johnny Key as among her references on her resume.

During the subcommittee’s meeting, Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, told Rep. Murdock, “I don’t want you to think this is disrespectful.

“But I do believe that the way the law is written that we should vet this a little bit further because otherwise, if we don’t do that, it would appear like we just pushed something through, and I think your wife deserves that respect,” Hickey said.

Lawmakers sometimes shy away from questioning administrators when their agencies propose hiring a lawmaker’s spouse.

Hickey told Markham, “I understand that sometimes if it is a spouse or something of one of the representatives, that makes it a little bit more uncomfortable.” He asked how many people applied.

“We had 105 applicants for this position,” and the job was advertised from June 23-July 7, Markham said.

Hickey asked Markham, “Did you have any outside influences from any of the legislators or others as far as the hiring of Miss Murdock?”

Markham replied, “No, sir, I did not.”

Hickey asked whether Markham is willing to testify that Murdock was the most qualified applicant out of the applicant pool.

Markham replied, “Absolutely.”

She said the 105 applications received was “a common number” for most of its positions, and probably 95 percent don’t meet the minimum qualifications, so “we have a handful of people usually that meet that minimum for the preferred qualifications.

“Of those, we did conduct interviews and Miss Murdock certainly was the most qualified,” she said.

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Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, pressed Markham to justify paying Murdock a salary higher than the entry-level rate for the job.

Markham said the agency committee that interviewed the candidates selected the most qualified candidate and passed that over to her to review Murdock’s qualifications.

“She did exceed the qualifications that we published for the preferred candidate by quite a bit as far as leadership experience, education and time in an educational setting, so we felt it was an appropriate request at that level,” she said. She said the minimum qualifications for the position included a master’s degree, at least five years in leadership and at least five years in education.

Markham said the four-member review committee was made up of the department’s senior associate director, former Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton; Career Pathways program specialist Lisa Fuller; federal program manager Monieca West; and Department of Workforce Services Director Daryl Bassett.

Markham said, “The reason that I settled on that salary in particular was we actually advertised the position with an entry level at that salary.

She said that when the position was advertised, the state’s new pay plan took effect. The pay for the position became $85,243, Markham said.

After the subcommittee’s meeting, Markham said that if the Legislative Council approves the department’s plan to hire Murdock “on Friday, she will begin on the first day of the next pay period. I think that is around the end of the month.”

After the subcommittee’s meeting, Reginald Murdock said that he didn’t attempt to get his wife hired for this job at the Department of Higher Education.

“This was all them. They sought and saw a great candidate and went after her. She had other options, as well,” Murdock said of his wife. He has served in the House since 2011.

Metro on 08/16/2017

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