When voters elected Fresno Unified school board trustees last week, they bucked a trend, bypassing candidates endorsed by the teachers union for two incumbents and a newcomer.
The races were not even close. Luis Chavez and incumbents Carol Mills and Janet Ryan easily won election over the Fresno Teachers Association candidates: Esmeralda Diaz, Andrew Doris and George Whitman.
The routs of union-backed candidates were unusual given the history of recent school board races. In the past decade, when the FTA picked a candidate, the odds were stacked in that person's favor on election night.
What changed this year?
"I have no clue," said FTA President Eva Ruiz. "I don't know if it was any one specific thing."
But observers offer up plenty of reasons: Chaos inside the FTA over a contested president's race. A weak slate of candidates. Incumbents buoyed by improved district test scores. State propositions on the ballot that sapped union cash that could have gone for school board races. And, a week before the election when the union balked at helping the district apply for $37.3 million in federal money, community leaders turned on the pressure. Finally, the FTA gave in.
All this added up to a hard sell for the union-endorsed candidates.
The FTA didn't have as much to spend per candidate this time as in recent years. The union divided $150,000 among its three candidates and two propositions. It supported Proposition 30, the governor's tax initiative to fund schools, and fought Proposition 32, a measure to reduce union political influence. Ruiz couldn't say how much of the total was spent on the propositions, but each candidate received $10,000.
In 2006, the union pumped more than $164,000 into an effort that helped oust two incumbents: Luisa Medina and Pat Barr. The two were supporters of Superintendent Michael Hanson, who had been hired about a year earlier. The FTA's slate of then-incumbents Tony Vang and Valerie Davis and challengers Cal Johnson and Michelle Asadoorian won seats that year.
In 2008, the union spent about that amount again to see former union boss Larry Moore elected along with Mills, who was union-backed at that time. A third FTA-backed candidate, Virginia Hermosillo, lost.
The union didn't endorse anyone in 2010.
Looking back, Medina says money wasn't the only factor when she was defeated. The district was perceived differently.
Then, the community had yet to see a turnaround in academic performance in the school district, Medina said. "The district now has gone through seven years of upward movement here, and people are liking that. Things were still tenuous back then."
That gave the incumbents an edge this time, she said, and the union-endorsed candidates also "didn't measure up to the positive record of the incumbents." For example, it didn't help that Doris had a methamphetamine arrest in his past, she said.
Community support for Fresno Unified also has never been greater than it is now, Medina said.
That was evident a week before the election when city leaders, clergy and business owners organized a campaign to get the union president's signature on a Race to the Top federal education improvement grant application.
The district was within hours of missing the application deadline before union leaders reached agreement with district officials and Ruiz signed the application -- a federal requirement. Teachers had been concerned over evaluations tied to test scores and issues involving working conditions.
The drama played out in the media, with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin holding news conferences, flanked one day by Fresno City Council Members Oliver Baines and Blong Xiong and on another by some of the city's most recognized pastors, including Paul Binion from Westside Church of God and Jim Franklin, pastor of Cornerstone Church.
"I don't think the Fresno Teachers Association helped themselves with their holdout on the Race to the Top, which was right before the election," said Sarah Reyes, a former state Assembly member and now regional program manager for the California Endowment. "Undecided voters probably made a judgment because of that."
Doris, a business consultant who lost to Mills for the Fresno High-Area 6 seat, said the bad press the FTA received didn't help union-backed candidates, including himself.
"The timing couldn't have been worse as far as the election," he said.
He and Whitman also blame negative campaigning by supporters of the incumbents that they were trying to unseat.
The Race to the Top wasn't the only headache for the teachers union, which represents about 3,000 members.
Eight days before the election, the FTA held its fourth presidential election since April. No clear-cut winner had emerged in prior elections, and Ruiz and elementary teacher Mai Summer Vue swapped challenges and victories over three tries to pick a president. Ruiz kept the presidency by a two-vote margin in the fourth election.
"They have been a little -- I think to put it mildly -- disorganized themselves, fighting over who their leader is," said Tom Holyoke, a political science professor at Fresno State. "The disorganization does not help you mount a political effort."
All in all, it was an image problem, Medina said. The union brand "is not good these days."
Fresno Unified School Board races
Totals updated Friday by the Fresno County Elections Office. Winners marked with X; (i) shows incumbent.
Roosevelt High Area (No. 2)
Precincts: 23 of 23 (100%)
x-Luis Chavez 1,852 47.09%
Esmeralda Diaz 1,158 29.44%
Daren Miller 910 23.14%
Fresno High Area (No. 5)
Precincts: 35 of 35 (100%)
x-Carol Mills (i) 4,941 60.53%
Andrew Doris 2,053 25.15%
Nicholas Montoya 1,148 14.06%
Hoover High Area (No. 6)
Precincts: 28 of 28 (100%)
x-Janet Ryan (i) 3,131 33.53%
George Whitman 2,096 22.45%
Carole Blomgren 1,454 15.57%
Daniel Harrison 1,362 14.59%
Ken Trapp 1,268 13.58%
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, email@example.com or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.