Incumbents Cindy Marks and Nancy Cline and challengers Sue Zwahlen and Ruben Villalobos lead the race for seats on the Modesto City Schools Board of Education, according to unofficial results from Tuesday's election.
Zwahlen, a mother of six and a part-time emergency room nurse, was running away with first place. With more than 98 percent of the precincts counted, the first-time candidate had 9,545 votes, or 16.8 percent.
Marks was second with 7,509 votes, or 13.2 percent. She's already the board's longest-serving trustee and is seeking her fourth term.
Third was defense attorney Villalobos with 7,276 votes, or 12.8 percent, followed by two-time incumbent Cline with 6,654 votes, or 11.7 percent. She led fifth-place challenger Solange Altman by 503 votes for the final seat on the seven-member board. Altman garnered 6,151 votes, or 10.8 percent.
Rounding out the preliminary results were challenger Jim Standart with 6,000 votes, or 10.6 percent; incumbent Steve Collins with 5,527 votes, or 9.7 percent; challenger Josh Vander Veen with 4,338 votes, or 7.7 percent; and incumbent Belinda Rolicheck with 3,604 votes, or 6.4 percent.
Trustees serve four-year terms and oversee the 30,000-student district's $250 million budget.
Zwahlen, 55, opened a 2,000-vote gap as the most favored candidate. She credited her strong showing to support from a variety of groups, including churches, parents and district employees, and to decades serving on education committees and volunteering at schools.
"I am so excited and thrilled in the confidence people seem to have placed in me," she said from a gathering at her house Tuesday night.
All nine candidates are "deeply concerned about education," and the 36-year-old Villalobos said voters clearly wanted change and trustees who will be more demanding of administrators.
"People are ready for change and wanted (trustees) who would be critical about financial management and who would put students' education first," said Villalobos from a party in downtown Modesto.
Cline, 56, said her conservative stance on issues such as the recent confidential medical services controversy helped her campaign. If the election numbers hold, Cline said the four leaders would make the seven-member board a more cohesive group that would work together better than the current board.
Marks, 47, earned a rebuff last month from Board President Steve Grenbeaux and Vice President Kim Spina for not following district protocols related to contact with the district's former financial chief. Marks said the warning letter was politically motivated because it was made public a month before the election.
Tuesday night, Marks said news of the letter might have played a role in her possible re-election.
"All the publicity was helpful," she said from a party at her house. "I stuck with my principles and I believe we should be open and honest, and that's evidenced by the response (from voters)."
Thousands of ballots are left to be counted, so results might not be final for several days.
The main campaign issue was budget cuts. Trustees will be making $15 million to $20 million -- or more -- in spending cuts for the 2010-11 school year. Those discussions will start in January, but a districtwide budget advisory already has been meeting.
Candidates employed different campaign strategies -- the five challengers promised change, saying the current board rubber-stamps staff recommendations with little discussion of questions. They also said the board and district office administrators need to improve transparency and communication.
The district's two main employee unions backed challengers Altman, Standart, Villalobos and Zwahlen. Union officials said they wanted new board members who would ask more questions of staff. The Modesto Teachers Association lent much political and financial support to the foursome.
Incumbents Marks and Cline -- the board's conservative bloc -- stuck together, distancing themselves from the current board and Superintendent Arturo Flores. They agreed with challengers that communication is limited, and that some of Flores' strategies are flawed.
Incumbents Collins and Rolicheck campaigned together, highlighting the district's achievements and denying that communication is as bad as others claim.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's education blog at thehive. modbee.com/ExtraCredit.