Preliminary results show leads for three Los Banos school trustee candidates opposing a local civil rights group, the Community Advocacy Coalition, which has already gained considerable power in the school district.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Megan Goin-Soares held a large early lead over embattled incumbent Tommy Jones, who earlier this year was charged in connection with a public corruption case. Preliminary results showed Goin-Soares ahead with 658 votes to Jones’ 243, as of 11:54 p.m. Tuesday.
Incumbent Dominic Falasco, who was credited with secretly recording numerous conversations in the criminal case against Jones, appears to have won over challenger Gary Munoz. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, the two candidates were separated by just 31 votes, 430 for Falasco and 399 for Munoz, as of 11:54 p.m. Tuesday.
Incumbent Carole Duffy was losing to challenger Margaret Benton, with Benton pulling 607 votes to Duffy’s 320, as of 11:54 p.m. Tuesday with 100 percent of precincts reporting.
Goin-Soares said her day was “unbelievably normal,” heading into the election.
“I’m not very nervous,” Goin-Soares said, as election results started coming in. “If I’m in the position, I’ll step up and get things headed in the right direction.”
Benton said she thinks her effort walking the streets and talking to people paid off.
“I showed up to the (Oct. 27 candidate) forum, and I think they heard what I have to say,” Benton said. “I think they’re ready for a change.”
Falasco said he is cautiously optimistic about his 31-vote lead.
“It’s still pretty close to call until they see what absentee votes are out there,” Falasco said, noting that his first election four years ago came down to even less votes. But he said he is hopeful that the lead will hold.
The three races have split into two camps: Jones, Munoz and Duffy with connections to the CAC, and the Los Banos Teachers Association endorsing Goin-Soares, Falasco and Benton.
If election results hold, a four-vote majority held by CAC-backed trustees on the school board could shift to a two-vote disadvantage with trustees Ray Martinez and Marlene Smith.
The division between the CAC-backed trustees and other trustees comes after several months of events sowing controversy, charges of corruption and deep-seeded anger between both sides.
CAC members have said they advocate for people who are underrepresented. They have claimed they are advocating for more Hispanic teachers and administrators in the district to better reflect the majority minority demographics of the student population.
The CAC has helped Jones with his campaign. The group has also expressed support for Duffy. And Munoz was present when the collective CAC was interviewed by the Los Banos Enterprise.
Jones and Duffy pushed for auditing the Creekside Junior High School project, leading to the school district paying two separate law firms with district funds to determine if former Superintendent Steve Tietjen profited in any way from the construction project.
Those investigations indicated there was no sign that Tietjen had any significant connections to the contractors hired for the project.
But then came the serious allegations against Jones, who is facing felony charges of bribing another trustee, Falasco.
Case reports from a 10-month investigation reveal details of secretly recorded conversations between Falasco, Jones and Merced-area contractor Greg Opinski that suggest Opinski paid Falasco for school board votes through Jones.
Jones and Opinski’s scheduled arraignments were rescheduled to Nov. 21. But the charges, which stem from the school contract to expand Mercey Springs Elementary School, led to public outrage at a board meeting that failed to meet its quorum on Sept. 22.
That’s when LBTA President Jason Walsh announced the teachers union was endorsing Falasco as well as Benton and Goin-Soares.
CAC member Baldo Salcido wrote a scathing letter to the editor in the Enterprise blasting some teachers for displaying “venomous hatred, racism and ugliness at its worst,” after the Sept. 22 meeting.
Teachers rallied around Walsh and slammed the CAC in subsequent board meetings.
However, members of the board have pointed out Falasco is facing his own drug charges.
Falasco was charged with misdemeanor meth possession in June after being arrested in April. During that incident, he was found by police in the passenger seat of his car with one of his clients.
Falasco has said the drugs weren’t his, but his client’s, and that he was going to flush them when he had a chance.
Those charges may have galvanized voters against Falasco.
“I think we need to do away with all of them,” resident Shondi Carrillo said after she voted at the Merced County Fire Station on H Street. “We need to start over fresh.”
That race was also marked by controversy after Munoz’s 28-year-old son, Will Diaz, confessed to vandalizing 13 of Falasco’s election signs.
Both Jones’ corruption charges and Falasco’s drug charges have disillusioned other voters in Los Banos, such as Melissa Uribe, who voted Tuesday at the Los Banos Community Center.
“I’ve been following the news, and it’s such a mess,” Uribe said. “It’s almost like what planet are we on? And how is this going to impact our children?”