A three-candidate slate backed by Modesto's teachers union looked to be a shoo-in early today for the Modesto City Schools Board of Education.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting in unofficial results, incumbent Gary A. Lopez led with 10,837 votes, or 26.5 percent. Former board member Steve Grenbeaux got 9,057 votes, or 22.1 percent and Salida rancher Kimberly Gerber Spina was close with 8,677 votes, or 21.2 percent. Seven candidates ran for the board's three open seats.
"It's a good evening so far," said Lopez, who took the night off as a Modesto Fire Department captain to celebrate with supporters at Tresetti's World Caffe downtown. "You never want to take anything for granted, but I'm really happy for the results."
Grenbeaux, who served on the school board from 1979 to 1991, said he knows from experience not to take elections for granted until all the votes are counted. In his first school board run in 1979, Grenbeaux said he won by only one vote -- after four recounts.
"This is where I hoped to be," Grenbeaux said of his nine-point lead over Ma-ria Alvarez.
Alvarez, who helps develop and implement services for migrant students in Stanislaus County, garnered 5,356 votes, or 13.1 percent.
With a solid lead, Grenbeaux lit what he called his Red Auerbach victory cigar about 9 p.m., channeling the legendary Boston Celtics basketball coach who smoked when he thought a game was decided.
Grenbeaux said support from the Modesto Teachers Association, which stumped for the three leading candidates, was influential in an election in which the final voter turnout in the county may barely surpass 20 percent.
"When you're organized and it's a low turnout election and you get your people out to vote, it makes a big difference," Grenbeaux said from an election night party at his Modesto home.
Spina spent election night with some prominent educators, including Modesto schools Superintendent Arturo Flores, county Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon and longtime schools advocate Bette Belle Smith, who helped with Spina's campaign. Spina raised the most money of the seven candidates, with more than $25,000 in contributions.
"I'm thrilled," Spina said while friends scoured election returns. "I'm just having fun; this is exciting."
The new Board of Education members' first meeting will be Dec. 17.
Lopez was the only incumbent of three up for re-election who sought another term.
Trustees Odessa Johnson, a board member of 16 years, and Connie Chin, elected in 1999, chose not to run again.
The board sets policies for the county's largest school district, with about 31,000 students and a $270 million budget this year.
There were few wedge issues among the candidates, but they did clash over whether intelligent design should be included in the science curriculum.
At a September candidate forum, Alvarez said she would support the theory being taught in the science curriculum.
She earned support from the board's more conservative members -- outgoing Trustee Chin and Trustee Cindy Marks, who have supported intelligent design in science classes.
The other candidates earning votes were Rickey McGill, with 3,448, or 8.4 percent; Dale "Gene" Williams with 2,011, or 4.9 percent; and Sareth Pen, with 1,393, or 3.4 percent.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.