Santa Ana school board President John Palacio emerged from the dust of a reelection election battle with a commanding victory over a determined slate of challengers, but he was not about to let his guard down.
Tuesday's election "was a referendum that the district is moving in the right direction," said Palacio, who finished first in a field of eight candidates seeking two seats. Palacio survived a campaign to oust him and change the board's composition, garnering 23% of the votes cast, according to preliminary results released Wednesday.
The 32-year-old consultant and former municipal employee vowed to build on the momentum of his victory to defeat a recall effort against fellow trustee and ally Nativo Lopez. A special recall election is scheduled for Feb. 4.
Opponents of Lopez and Palacio successfully ousted board majority member Nadia Maria Davis, who came in fourth, with 14% of the votes. But the two candidates backed by recall supporters and City Hall leaders failed to win a seat on the five-member Santa Ana Unified School District's governing board.
Instead, former trustee Audrey Y. Noji regained a seat on the board, coming in second with 17% of the vote.
Challengers Lupe Moreno and Oscar Garza came in third and fifth, respectively, despite being backed by Santa Ana Mayor Miguel A. Pulido and businessman Ron Unz, the anti-bilingual education activist who jumped into Santa Ana elections to help opponents of Lopez.
The two challengers still held on to hope Wednesday while the county registrar of voters counts about 65,000 absentee and provisional votes countywide. Garza said he may consider putting his name forward to replace Lopez should the recall succeed. Moreno said she won't run in the recall. Candidates have until Nov. 21 to get their names on the recall ballot.
The stakes in the continuing struggle for control of the 62,000-student district grew larger Tuesday with passage of Proposition 47, the $13-billion statewide school bond measure that could mean an additional $100 million or more for Santa Ana's school projects.
The pace of adding classrooms in the severely overcrowded school district has been one of the most contentious issues in the current political battle. In 1999, Santa Ana voters passed $145 million in local bonds, but the district is only now moving on major projects.
Palacio and Lopez say the district was hindered by the city's lack of undeveloped land for new schools. They also say that City Hall and Mayor Pulido stood in the way of at least one new elementary campus, instead backing a luxury-home complex on the property in the city's affluent north end. Pulido hasn't returned calls seeking comment on school district issues.
Recall supporters also say Lopez has illegally promoted bilingual education in the mostly Latino district by encouraging parents to seek waivers from English-only instruction. Lopez denies the charge.
"The margin of John's victory is a repudiation of both Miguel Pulido and Ron Unz and their attempt to wrest control of the school district for property and ideological reasons," Lopez countered Wednesday.
The prospect of continued political vitriol disheartened some in the district.
"It is a mess," said Kim Gerda, who has a daughter in elementary school.
"What I hope happens in the recall is that candidates emerge who will look at ... children's needs."