When the State Board of Education gathered in late July, what didn’t happen was more notable than what did.
Leading up to the meeting, in which the board was set to approve supplemental materials for science curriculum, watchdog groups girded for battle, warning that board members might use their power to try to introduce creationist arguments through backdoor changes. But anyone expecting the circus that attracted international media attention in previous years was disappointed: After a brief back-and-forth, the board voted unanimously to leave any such decisions up to the state education commissioner.
"Somebody might want their ticket refunded, because there wasn't a fight," member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, said at the time.
Many attributed the lack of drama to the power shift in the 2010 elections, when the bloc of social conservatives that ruled the board lost its leader, chairman Don McLeroy, and its most reliable swing vote, Rick Agosto. Now, with three longtime (and moderate) members stepping down and all 15 members up for re-election because of changes brought about by redistricting, political control over the divisive board hangs in the balance. And even though the filing period has yet to begin, there are already signs that these races could get ugly. Questions about one member's sexual orientation, for example, are already being raised.
Some board members will also undoubtedly try to oust each other. Bradley, who consistently votes with the board’s social conservatives, said he would be “actively working” against Thomas Ratliff, McLeroy's replacement.
Randy Stevenson, a Tyler businessman who served on the board from 1994 to 1998, announced Wednesday that he would run against Ratliff, a registered lobbyist whose clients include Microsoft and whose opponents, because of that, have argued that he should be disqualified from office.
“The three issues that will be in the forefront of that race are, one, he is a lobbyist, two, he is a lobbyist, three, he is a lobbyist,” Bradley said.
An August opinion from the Texas attorney general said state law prohibits lobbyists who are paid to represent clients on matters related to the board from serving on it, but declined to rule on whether that means Ratliff is ineligible. Ratliff said his lobby contracts avoid any conflict with board duties and that he is unconcerned about his profession becoming a liability in the upcoming election.
“Despite their best efforts to make it an issue, it continues to fall on deaf ears,” he said.
Bradley has yet to attract a declared opponent, but that's expected to happen soon. Meanwhile, social conservative incumbents Ken Mercer and chairwoman Barbara Cargill have already drawn primary challengers, as has George Clayton. Bob Craig and Marsha Farney, moderate Republicans, and Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat, have all announced that they will not seek re-election.
The race in Clayton’s district, which now includes all of Collin County north of Dallas, may prove especially contentious. Clayton, a teacher who lives in Richardson, defeated longtime incumbent Geraldine “Tincy” Miller in an upset during the 2010 primary. Miller now wants her old seat back and has launched a campaign attacking Clayton’s conservative credentials, in particular his support of a plan last spring that would have directed $2 billion from the Permanent School Fund to public schools.
The board oversees the management of the now $25 billion fund fed by revenue from state land and mineral holdings; its interest goes to pay for textbooks and basic operations in public schools. In early April, as it became clear that lawmakers' budget cuts would reduce funding for public education by $4 billion, nine board members, including Clayton and Ratliff, signed a letter asking the Legislature to pass a resolution to allow the public to vote on a constitutional amendment that would draw an additional $2 billion from the fund.
The board’s six social conservatives did not sign the letter and vigorously objected to drawing from the fund. (After Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus all came out against the proposal, it fizzled.)
Miller said she was "incredulous" when she heard what some board members were proposing to do with the fund. Board members, she said, “should never, ever be a part of trying to go around that constitutional wording and raid that fund with a constitutional amendment.”
But perhaps more damaging to Clayton in a Republican primary are the rumors that prompted him to send an email to members of the media last week with the subject line "sexual orientation." Clayton, who was leaked the notes of a conversation between Miller and Tea Party Activist Susan Fletcher that mentioned his "living arrangements," confirmed in the email that he has "a male partner who lives with me in my home.”
In a phone interview, Miller said that she was not the one who brought up Clayton's sexual orientation, but she noted that others have. Fletcher said in an email that she was “urged by several sources in general” to investigate Clayton’s living arrangement — but not by Miller.
Clayton said in an email that when he realized his personal life might become an issue in the campaign, his first instinct was to “nip it in the bud.” That strategy has already cost him one supporter: Conservative blogger Donna Garner, who is a vocal follower of education issues, sent out an email Tuesday night retracting an endorsement of him.
Clayton said the political makeup of the board — and whether "cool heads and reasonable discussions" would prevail — depends on the next election. The board’s biggest responsibility in the next four years, he wrote, will be “to keep public education alive in Texas.”