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The Runoffs: SBOE District 10

One candidate touts her education policy expertise; the other, his conservative political credentials. This race for retiring incumbent Cynthia Dunbar's seat on the State Board of Education may come down to campaign money vs. Christian grassroots muscle.

Marsha Farney and Brian Russell

State Board of Education candidate Brian Russell has got the social conservative circuit covered.

When the District 10 GOP runoff contender stepped out of last week's board meeting, he found himself among friends: SBOE member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, who handily won a primary against a more moderate challenger, and state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, the head of the Texas Conservative Coalition. Russell, a patent lawyer and member of the State Republican Executive Committee, also boasts a lengthy list of endorsements, including that of the seat's outgoing incumbent, Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond.

But in Marsha Farney, Russell has a worthy competitor. The two emerged from the primary in a virtual tie: Farney led him by just 203 votes, with another candidate, Rebecca Osborne, trailing the two by more than 6,000 votes. As they head into the runoff, Russell has been anointed by social conservatives, while Farney carries local name recognition (thanks to her mother-in-law Rhonda Farney’s legendary career as a high school women’s basketball coach) and money — lots of it. The race may come down to a battle between financial resources and Christian conservative grassroots muscle.

Dunbar is part of the board's seven-member social conservative bloc, which has been a driving force behind efforts to point out flaws in the theory of evolution and to return the state's public schools to more traditional metods of teaching math and language arts. Her book, One Nation Under God, refers to public schools as "a subtly deceptive tool of perversion." In the e-mail announcing her decision not to run for re-election, she introduced Russell as someone who “has proven himself to be of impeccable character, knowledge, competence and self-sacrificing service to the community.”

Russell returns the compliment. “[Dunbar] has done an exceptionally good job,” he says. While there are differences in background and skills, he says, “We certainly share a very common perspective.” Since he jumped into the race, Russell has won endorsements from four other members of the bloc, including David Bradley, R-Beaumont, and former board chairman Don McLeroy, R-Bryan.

Farney’s ideological alliances aren’t a selling point. Her campaign emphasizes improving the dropout rate and implementing tougher ethics standards on the SBOE. “For me, a key component of learning is you treat your students with respect,” Farney says. “Hopefully I can carry that to the State Board of Education as well.” She has leaned heavily on her teaching background and her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction in the campaign. “The credentials are key — that’s what people should be looking at anyway,” she says. 

Russell doesn’t think so. "This is not an expert system. This is system of citizen input, as it should be," he says. As a Republican activist, he argues his advocacy skills suit him for the job. “The purpose of this board is not who’s the best classroom teacher,” he says. “It’s a skill and ability to participate in public policy determinations and to be successful in advancing common-sense concepts.”

Farney argues that common sense means someone who understands curricular choices. She points to some of the experts the board has dismissed, explaining they were “icons” in the education community, trusted by teachers. She also pushes for a “historically accurate” social studies curriculum. “We don’t want the children to be the casualties [in the culture wars]” she says. Farney demurs when asked if that’s been a problem on the board. “I just think education should be the focus instead of being pulled aside by a particular ideology,” she says.

Russell, by contrast, doesn’t hesitate to jump into the fray. “Bob Craig is not conservative,” he says of the board’s Republican member from Lubbock. “He’s a liberal on anyone’s spectrum except his own.” He laments McLeroy’s narrow primary loss to Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist who ran on “de-politicizing” the board. Russell wishes McLeroy had gone on the offensive. “I think it would have been very fair and very accurate to say he was running against a lobbyist, 'cause that’s what his opponent is,” he says. “I’m sorry that the voters did not see that there was a bright line difference there.”

The Austin American-Statesman endorsed Farney in the runoff, criticizing Russell as a "Dunbar acolyte" who didn't send his children to public schools. Russell dismisses the charges from what he calls the "Un-American Spaceman" and says his family's decision to homeschool isn't relevant. "I’m a teacher. I teach my kids at home," he says. "Does that make me weird? No."

Still, the endorsement was negative publicity that Russell can hardly afford. Farney has drawn on her family's considerable personal funds — in her last campaign finance report, she reported spending more than $100,000 of her own money. Russell has only spent a little over $25,000 total, and a paltry $60 of his own. With such resources at her disposal, Farney has been able to run ads on television and radio and produce a series of mailers. Almost all of them mention her children's enrollment in public schools and her educational background.

The winner of the Russell-Farney runoff on April 13 will face Democrat Judy Jennings in the November general election.

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