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District 5 SBOE candidates show their differences

Friday, February 12, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

At the Central Texas Candidate Forum, held at the LBJ School on Thursday afternoon, the full slate of District 5 State Board of Education candidates sounded off on their qualifications and philosophies. The crowded Democratic field saw two candidates pull away from the pack, while the heated Republican forum had Tim Tuggey and Ken Mercer trading metaphorical jabs over their different views of conservatism. KUT reporter Nathan Bernier moderated both panels.


The Democratic field included psychiatrist (not frontiersman) Daniel Boone, professor Rebecca Bell-Metereau, machine operator Josiah Ingalls, and preacher and mental health case manager Robert Bohmfalk. Bell-Metereau said the board needs to “get away from feelings and toward science.” She noted that science was created in order to analyze issues objectively.


Bell-Metereau said recent debates about the credibility of evolution were giving the rest of the country a poor impression of a state with already high dropout rates. She said Rep. Mark Strama had told her that he has a hard time bringing tech companies to Texas because there’s “the impression Texas is anti-science.”


All of the Democratic candidates reiterated the theme of setting aside politics to improve education. “Laws first, not ethics,” was Ingalls’ awkward catchphrase of the afternoon, and he suggested several times that the SBOE’s actions were at times illegal. Preacher Bohmfalk declared, “To me there is no conflict between faith and evolution.”


Boone bemoaned the social studies debates: “The SBOE thinks our Hispanics have not made much of a contribution to Texas or US history, and that’s not true … in economics they have left out the labor movement. These are terrible mistakes.” Bell-Metereau said $19.5 million had been spent on abstinence-only education, some of which advised students, “Watch who your friends are and get plenty of sleep” as a way to prevent STDs. The English professor appeared to be the clear Democratic front-runner, with 20 years’ teaching experience and $30,000 raised along with several endorsements


The Republican forum between former state representative and SBOE member since 2006 Ken Mercer and Austin business lawyer and veteran Tim Tuggey was much more contentious. Mercer sounded the culture war’s standards, saying children could be learning about homosexual sex positions in health class and questioning evolution and global warming.


For most of the afternoon Tuggey was practically pleading that Texans act more rationally about the state of education. He questioned why any Republican who supported limited government would want to micromanage classrooms. While Mercer proclaimed phonics as a victory, Tuggey spoke about using math and science to prepare children “to compete in a global marketplace.” It was a study in contrasts of both style and substance. Mercer brought up “silver rings the teens wear that mean they’re going to abstain from sex.” Tuggey advocated “abstinence first, but not without other information that we all need to understand about the consequences of sexual behavior.” Mercer discussed the evils of “edu-crats” while Tuggey said solving the dropout rate of nearly 25 percent was more worthy of debate. He called the current ideological split a problem that “was self-generating.”


Moderator Bernier then drew the candidates into a bit of a battle over Mercer’s recent emails, which emphasize Tuggey’s past donations to Democrats. Mercer said Tuggey had given $40,000 to 21 different Democrats using personal checks. Tuggey then explained that those donations were from his firm and that he had given much more to Republicans. He then turned the issue into an example of his pragmatism, saying he had supported Democrats who aligned with some conservative issues. 


Also Thursday, The Austin Chronicle endorsed Bell-Metereau and Tuggey.


District 5 includes nine full counties — Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Comal, Gillespie, Guadalupe, Hays, Kendall, and Llano — and portions of Bexar, Travis, and Bell. There are 51 independent school districts in District 5, in whole or in part.

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