Voters in a small rural school district near Yosemite National Park voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to oust all five board members, according to unofficial returns, the first time in memory that an entire school board has been unseated.
"The community has given us a mandate," said Gloria Marler, who won a seat on the board of the Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District. "I believe that mandate is to restore trust, restore integrity, be held accountable for our actions, follow the law and be completely transparent."
The tiny Tuolumne County school district has a history of political infighting and unrest that came to a head in September, when the board voted not to reinstate a popular math teacher over allegations that he committed plagiarism in a course he took at Cal State Fresno.
He was later cleared of the charges, but not rehired.
Upset students boycotted classes the next day and launched a campaign to recall the board, gathering signatures to bring the matter to a vote with the help of their parents and others in the community.
Tioga High School Principal Sandy Bradley, a recall supporter, called the effort "a great lesson in democracy. . . . What better lesson is there for a kid, especially some of them who are turning 18?"
But recall opponents, among them ousted board member Dave Gookin, argued that the student effort was a front for angry adults with designs on school board seats and reflected long-standing tensions between the growing Lake Don Pedro area and the town of Groveland.
"The letters to the editor, the accusations, have come from a small source," Gookin said. "Students protecting their democratic rights? No, no. They were set up, being used."
Math teacher Ryan Dutton, who is at the center of the controversy, is fighting to get his job back. No matter what, he said, change needs to occur in a school district divided by "a bunch of letters to the editors, renting ads in newspapers. . . . This is silly."
Dutton heard the good news at a victory party late Tuesday at Marler's home. "We're very excited," he said, describing the victory as "overwhelming." "All I want is a job and a chance to make a difference for the kids."
Unlike the statewide election, the recall was conducted entirely by mail. By 8 p.m. when the polls closed, 2,111 ballots had been counted, 60% of the 3,510 mailed out. A trickle more that were handed in at polling places have yet to be counted, so the result is still unofficial.
But "mathematically, this is it," said Deborah Russell, Tuolumne County clerk and auditor-controller. "The numbers won't stay the same. The results will."
In a quarter-century spent tracking school board politics in California, Mark Petracca, chairman of the UC Irvine political science department, said he "can't think of a case" in which a community tried to unseat an entire school board at once and doesn't think that the Big Oak Flat-Groveland effort will embolden other unhappy districts.
"It's a hard thing to do," Petracca said. "If it were an easy thing, it would be done more often."