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Area Democrats challenge conservatives for State Board of Education

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Two Democrats, each of whom represents a part of the Austin area, have joined forces in an attempt to unseat conservatives on the State Board of Education.

Austin Democrat Judy Jennings will challenge Cynthia Dunbar in State Board of Education District 10, which includes the northern half of Travis County. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lives in San Marcos and will challenge Ken Mercer in District 5. Both have backgrounds in education: Jennings works at Resources for Learning and Bell-Metereau is a professor in English and film at Texas State University.

Earlier this week, UT professor Lorenzo Sadun withdrew from the District 10 Democratic primary and threw his support behind Jennings. Sadun wrote on his Web site, “Much as I would like to serve on the SBOE, I cannot allow my own ambition to stand in the way of Judy’s bringing necessary change to a dysfunctional board.” There are no other candidates in the Democratic primary—at least so far—and none are expected.

The consultant for both Jennings and Bell-Metereau is Austin-based Stanley-Garrison & Associates, which is launching an ambitious fund-raising campaign for the two seats, which encompass three major media markets.

Even after some of some of the higher-profile media events surrounding the board – the fight over evolution being one and Dunbar’s claim that President Barack Obama plotted with terrorists – it’s still unclear whether there’s enough residual concern to unseat incumbents.

Jennings and Bell-Metereau have started campaigning efforts, addressing a small crowd at an East Travis County LULAC chapter on Saturday. A number of comments and concerns were outside or tangential to the State Board of Education purview, such as more support for special education students or the need to support more fine arts programs in the state or public education for all children, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. The duo’s support of the latter drew applause.

The general message the two bring right now is support for public education. When it comes to the incumbents they challenge, and Dunbar in particular, doubts have been raised about how supportive the members have been when it comes either to building public education or tearing it down in favor of vouchers.

With such a broad region – each SBOE district encompasses around 12 counties – a campaign can get expensive. Campaign consultant Scott Garrison has goals of raising $250,000 for Jennings’ race and $350,000 for Bell-Metereau’s race.

“I think I have an advantage in my district because Ken Mercer has painted teachers as the enemy, but teachers have the same kind of grassroots capabilities as these extreme conservative church groups,” Bell-Metereau said. “They’ve decided to take on teachers as the enemy, but we learned from the Obama campaign that we can have political power, too. They enlisted support and created phone trees and created small communication groups, and we’ll have a part of that.”

Jennings, who described some SBOE members as being harsh and even abusive to Texas Education Agency staff, said a constituency for reasonable leadership, even in districts that have voted in Republican members, does exist.

“We need to make people aware that there’s been a problem, and let them know what they can do about it,” Jennings said. “People need to know that the board is in balance, and even one vote can make a difference.”

SBOE is a 15-member elected board. Of that membership, members Barbara Cargill, Terri Leo, Don McLeroy, Gail Lowe, David Bradley, Dunbar and Mercer are in the conservative faction. Lowe chairs the board, replacing McLeroy after the Senate declined to confirm him as chair last session. McLeroy remains a member of the board, elected from the SBOE district that includes College Station.

The balance is moderate or liberal, although members Rick Agosto and Lawrence Allen, who have been given important committee seats by the conservatives, have voted with the conservatives on a number of key votes or even been absent during crucial votes on decisive instructional measures. Agosto, who represents a portion of San Antonio, like Mercer, already has announced he will not run for another term.

That leaves a lot of speculation as to who will control the board and whether the momentum that ousted McLeroy could continue or if it was limited to the Democratic political circles in Austin. Some have speculated that McLeroy’s non-confirmation was easy payback to the Republicans for refusing to accept a key portion of the federal stimulus package. Gov. Rick Perry appointed McLeroy.

Bell said the gap she needs to close in her race is four percentage points. It’s often hard to estimate just how much it will take to unseat people who have failed to draw challengers in their prior races for State Board of Education.

The wild card in the race between Mercer and Bell- Metereau is the Republican primary. Tim Tuggey, the former chair of the VIA Metro board in San Antonio, is challenging Mercer in the primary. Making the case that Democrats should prevail as a reasonable voice may be more difficult if it comes down to a face-off between Tuggey and Bell-Metereau in the November general election.

The Dunbar race will also generate interest. Dunbar went unchallenged coming into her first term. She barely campaigned and was not challenged in any way. Her district is more conservative, but in news stories Dunbar’s own words, culled from her book, One Nation Under God: How the Left Is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great, have caused controversy. In it, Dunbar calls political moderates lukewarm and notes that it’s easy to understand why the enemy has chosen to use public education as “a subtly deceptive tool of perversion.”

Dunbar, an attorney who lives in Richmond, home schools her own children.

Jennings and Bell-Metereau will continue to make appearances before small groups. Major debates for each race are being planned by PTA Councils in February. The primary next spring is on March 10.

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