The cupcakes were passed out before the results came in.
Tuesday night at The Coffee Exchange was a long one, as School District 11 candidates waited for election results. The party drew incumbent Jan Tanner, newcomers Bob Null and Chyrese Exline, and Tom Strand (who was appointed to the board in early 2007). The four had plenty of time to schmooze with friends and colleagues, including board vice president Tami Hasling and president John Gudvangen.
Hours passed. Hasling was among those who left before the results were in. On her way out the door, she shot a peeved parting look at the computer screen where election results were supposed to be. "Sorry," is what it read, in bold, black letters. It would be more than an hour, around 10:15 p.m., before those results finally rolled in.
Considering the amount of tension that had built, there wasn't much celebration when Tanner, Null and Strand won. (Incumbent Charlie Bobbitt, who was at a separate party, edged Exline for the fourth spot.)
"I'm ready to serve," Tanner said dryly.
Even the normally chipper Strand looked glum for a moment, before saying that being elected was a treat. "I'm thrilled," he said, breaking into a broad smile.
The mood was clearly dampened as the room waited for Exline to react. The well-liked candidate lost by just 1,159 votes, and she was trying to play it cool.
"That's OK," she said. "I was close. I'll probably come back in a couple years."
Still, some eyes looked a little dewy. Such is the brutality of elections.
A white board
Exline wasn't the only one who lost in an election with disappointing turnout. (The unofficial total of 23,717 fell 5,000 short of last winter's recall election.) Past board member Delia Armstrong-Busby and incumbent Willie Breazell also came up short. All the losers in the race were African-American, meaning the D-11 board, which represents a diverse district, now will have no minority members.
That's just one of the new board's challenges.
The district is working on implementing policy governance, a more hands-off approach to overseeing the schools that puts greater responsibility on the superintendent and school administrators.
And the board must decide what to do with East Middle School, which was closed in May. (Some have proposed using grant funding to reopen the school as a math-science magnet; a committee is working on a recommendation for East's future.)
The board also faces a quick decision on whether to approve Patricia Miranda Charter Academy. All the newly elected board members have expressed reservations about charters. But they will have to accept that a rejection of future charter schools doesn't necessarily nix them. (Charters can be approved through the state without input from the district.)
Perhaps none of the board members elected Tuesday will have as many hurdles as Null, D-11's only brand-new member.
The heat is already on. On election night, Gudvangen asked Null if he'd be attending the weekend's meetings on policy governance. Null said no one had told him about the meetings, and he has an out-of-state trip planned. So it appears all the pieces haven't fallen into place quite yet.
Null, however, seems excited.
"This is what I probably wanted most in my adult life," Null said, his eyes welling with tears as he hugged his wife, Theresa.
Null says he'll keep an open mind on the issues, but he expects the board to learn from the district's mistakes (which, he thinks, include past bickering and the closing of East). And he hopes to hit the ground running.
"I want to look at, "What are some of the challenges that we can tackle right away?'" he said.
Hasling says she's comfortable working with the new board, and with Null. She thinks everyone is more or less on the same page. But she feels Null, like any new board member, will face a learning curve. Besides understanding the board's inner workings and the massive budget, Null will likely have to reconcile dreams with reality.
"The first thing you want to do is you think you can make these changes overnight, but it always takes time," Hasling said. "That was one of my obstacles when I first got on."
Meanwhile, Breazell's exit represents a philosophical shift for the board; he was a strong advocate for charter schools and vouchers in the past. More recently he pushed for merit-based pay for teachers and staff, and incentives for students. His approach is pragmatic: He says the world revolves around money, and so should the district.
Many board members disagree with that philosophy. And with Breazell gone, it appears the board will review a broader set of solutions to the student-achievement troubles that continue to plague D-11.