Fights for state education board heat up

The battle to guide public school education in Texas is ramping up.

Historically, elections for the State Board of Education are fairly quiet.

But this year, as bids for two local seats on the 15-member board head to runoffs on May 27, quiet is one thing they are not.

On the Republican side, incumbent Patricia “Pat” Hardy of Fort Worth faces a challenge from Eric Mahroum of Bedford in the race to represent District 11.

On the Democratic side, Erika Beltran of Dallas and Andrea Hilburn of Dallas are squaring off, each hoping to replace the retiring Mavis Best Knight in District 13.

“This has been a relatively low-profile board,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “But these races are higher-profile.”

Through the years, the board, which wades into controversial debates on topics ranging from evolution to whether a Mexican-American studies class should be required for Texas students, has sparked protests, rallies, marches and more over issues that affect public school children statewide.

While the board more often than not quietly goes about its business, which primarily is to manage the state’s Permanent School Fund, its members ultimately determine which topics Texas schoolchildren learn.

And that’s enough to spark the interest of many North Texans in these races.

“The most important thing in your life is your children,” Riddlesperger said. “When they talk about school board policies [and curriculum], these are issues that are extremely important to parents.

“Parents will go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that their children get a good education.”

Board members are elected to four-year terms and are not paid.

District 11

Hardy, the incumbent and a longtime educator, drew 49.57 percent of the vote in the March 4 primary, just shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Mahroum earned 43.51 percent, picking up the second spot in the runoff, and a third candidate, Lady Theresa Thombs, garnered nearly 7 percent, state election records show.

Hardy, 65, said she’s seeking another term on the board, where she has served since 2003, because she wants to continue to improve Texas’ public educational system.

“I believe in public school education,” said Hardy, a part-time instructional strategist for the Weatherford school district. “I believe I can make a difference — and I have made a difference through the State Board of Education.

“I have been in education for 44 years,” she said. “I understand the aspects of education, the standards and what’s involved in textbooks and textbook reviews. I have connections with the neighborhood schools. And I’m still working in the school district.”

Hardy, who is proud of her work as head of the board’s Committee on School Finance/Permanent School Fund, has drawn criticism from those who say she isn’t conservative enough because she works with other board members to find a middle ground on key issues.

“My opponents call it weak, but I bring about a consensus among the board for the SBOE,” she said. “Education shouldn’t be a Republican or a Democratic thing.”

Hardy reported having more than $7,500 cash on hand eight days before the March 4 primary. Her donations this year included $1,000 from former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, $5,000 from Charles E. Butt of San Antonio, $1,000 from the Texas Parent PAC and $2,550 from the Texas Association of Texas Professional Educators PAC.

Mahroum, a 31-year-old operations manager from Bedford, is a self-described activist in the Republican Party who has been involved with the Tea Party and young Republican groups.

A father of two, he said he wasn’t happy with some of Hardy’s votes and decided to run because he believed she shouldn’t have a free ride to another term. “I don’t feel she’s adequate for the job,” he said. “She has been there for over a decade. It’s time to go. We need a fresh voice.”

Former candidate Thombs has said Mahroum fell behind on child support. But Mahroum said: “I have never been behind on child support payments. That was a lie made up by Lady Theresa Thombs. Among others lies that she made up about me.”

Mahroum, a 2001 graduate of Mansfield High School who received his college degree online from American Intercontinental University, has never taught. But he said he believes he can “make a difference for the children.”

“I want to help get us back on track to where we need to be in education,” he said. “I don’t claim to have all the answers, … but with the help of the community and fellow members on the board, we can get things back the way they need to be.”

He said he wants to stand firm against the “Obama administration and liberals in D.C. trying to push their agenda on Texas” and wants to protect the Permanent School Fund.

Mahroum’s last report showed he had $387.04 cash on hand eight days before the primary. His donations included $250 from Mike Brasovan, a previous congressional candidate; $250 from Don McLeroy, a former SBOE chairman who promoted teaching arguments against evolution; and $100 from Mike Olcott of Fort Worth.

The district includes west and southwest Fort Worth, suburban Tarrant County, all of Parker County and the northwest corner of Dallas County.

District 13

In the three-way race to replace Knight in District 13, Beltran led with 47.04 percent of the vote in the primary. Hilburn came in second, with 27.38 percent, edging out of the runoff A. Denise Russell, who drew 25.56 percent of the vote, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Beltran, a 35-year-old policy program director for Teaching Trust, said she’s the person for the job.

“I will put the needs of children and families first and foremost,” said Beltran, of Dallas, who grew up as the daughter of immigrants in Fort Worth’s Diamond Hill neighborhood. “As someone who overcame many challenges growing up in District 13, I am committed to ensuring that all children have the same opportunity I had to reach their full potential.

“I’m not running in this race because I want to be a politician,” she said. “I’m running because I believe education is the civil-rights issue of our time and that we must do better by our kids.”

Beltran reported having $11,568 cash on hand eight days before the March 4 primary. Her donations included $1,000 from former state Rep. Domingo Garcia of Dallas, $5,000 from the Texans for Education Reform PAC and more than $11,500 from Leadership for Educational Equality — Texas.

Hilburn, a 64-year-old educator in the Dallas school district, said she has spent four decades in education in posts ranging from teacher and principal to adjunct professor in Concordia University master’s program. And that has prepared her for this job, she said.

“My educational experience will serve as an opportunity to frame the educational structure that would contribute to the needs of our children,” she said. “I want to work with both parties in planning the educational future of all Texas children. My passion is putting children first.

“I am driven, creative and open-minded when it comes to what is best for all children in Texas schools,” she said. “Educating children is my business — my only business.”

Hilburn was endorsed by the retiring Knight before the primary. An eight-day-out report showed she had nearly $1,000 cash on hand, which included several $100 donations from Dallas residents.

District 13 stretches from the Fort Worth Stockyards through much of Dallas County and includes east Arlington.