Voters spoke, and they want a new direction for the Modesto City Schools board of trustees.
That's the conclusion candidates reached from Tuesday's results, which ushered in first-time candidates Ruben Villalobos and Sue Zwahlen along with conservative incumbents Nancy Cline and Cindy Marks.
It was bad news for incumbents Steve Collins and Belinda Rolicheck, who campaigned on the district's successes.
Their message apparently didn't resonate with voters who have watched the 32,000-student school district careen through financial and personnel struggles over the past year.
"People didn't buy it," said Paul Neumann, a former Modesto City Schools and Yosemite Community College District trustee.
With at least 13,000 mail-in and provisional ballots left to count by the end of the week, it appears Zwahlen (16.8 percent of the vote), Marks (13.3 percent) and Villalobos (12.8 percent) have comfortable leads in the race. Cline (11.8 percent) should round out the winners. Fifth-place Solange Altman is 550 votes behind her.
Villalobos and Zwahlen said they would be asking plenty of questions, but wanted to be constructive, not adversarial.
Candidates spent part of Wednesday taking down signs and thanking supporters for their help. Some were thinking of their next steps.
First priority for newcomers Villalobos and Zwahlen is meeting district staff and trustees to discuss their goals. Tuesday's four leaders vow to improve communication — internally and externally with the community.
"My No. 1 priority is to see what everyone can do to come together as a team," Villalobos said Wednesday.
He struck an independent tone when he discussed a school board guideline that encourages trustees to funnel their contacts with district employees through Superintendent Arturo Flores.
School Board President Steve Grenbeaux and Vice President Kim Spina on Sept. 30 sent Marks a letter chiding her for not following that guideline.
"I absolutely think the superintendent should be in the loop, but the superintendent doesn't tell the board where to go and who to talk to," Villalobos said.
Zwahlen is looking forward to meeting with district office staff and other trustees before her December swearing-in. She said she intends to focus on checking in with teachers, classified employees and parents.
"I want to talk with people in the community and listen, listen, listen to them," she said. Her plan is to be part of a cohesive board supporting employees, but also to be critical when necessary.
They may try again
Those who lost Tuesday said they'd consider making another run at the office in two years.
"The issues aren't going to go away. There will still be some economic issues over the next five years," Altman said Wednesday.
Cline and Marks were thankful to win re-election during a campaign cycle unfriendly to incumbents. They said the strong and loyal support of their conservative base contributed to their success.
Marks said Grenbeaux's rebuff likely helped her in the election. To some, it demonstrated that she was an independent representative on the board.
"The best piece of campaign literature was that letter from Grenbeaux and Spina," said Barney Hale, executive director of the Modesto Teachers Association.
Incumbents Collins and Rolicheck had poor showings, placing seventh and ninth. Despite others' calls for change, Collins and Rolicheck campaigned on the good things going on in Modesto schools, a strategy some viewed as circling the wagons.
Collins acknowledged that may have been a bad campaign tactic. He said he wanted to show that the district has plenty to be proud of despite the public acrimony on the board.
"I positioned myself the way I did because I'm really proud of the achievements the district has made and the acceleration of those achievements since our superintendent has come on board," he said.
"My sense is, after the two new board members get up to speed, the board will be a very competent board," he added.
Rolicheck couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
With a crowded panel of nine running, there were some areas of note in Tuesday's preliminary vote totals:
Some predicted that newcomer Josh Vander Veen, 24, would come in last, but he captured 4,381 votes, or 7.7 percent of the vote — 730 more votes than Rolicheck. Vander Veen was proud of his good showing and said he'd probably run again in two years. He vows to continue pushing for more community donations and volunteering even though he won't sit on the board.
"I'm glad I convinced 4,000 people, I just need to convince 2,000 more. Apparently, I'm saying the right things," he said.
The four endorsed by the district's two large employee unions were in the top six. The Modesto Teachers Association spent lots of money and time campaigning for the four. But the MTA's Hale said the goal was not to get pro-teacher candidates on the board.
"The result, we hope, is that there will be substantial change in openness of the board. We want to see open discussion of all issues fully and publicly. That's all we wanted," he said.
Not all candidates collecting the most monetary donations came out on top. Marks came in second in the race, but eighth in fund-raising ($7,700) through mid-October, the most recent deadline for financial disclosure forms. Jim Standart collected the third most with $21,000, but came up short and placed seventh in votes.