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Newcomers win seats on Petaluma school board

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Voters in the Petaluma Joint Union High School District appeared to elect two new board members and an incumbent, turning back two veteran board members in a rebuke to the leadership of Petaluma’s largest school district.

With all 65 precincts tallied, retired teacher Mady Cloud was well in front with 22 percent of the vote. Joanna Paun, a high school counselor, had 16 percent and incumbent Sheri Chlebowski, an attorney, had 16 percent. Caitlin Quinn, a nonprofit communications director, trailed for the third seat by 374 votes.

Provisional and mail-in ballots still must be counted, but if the results hold, it would be a seismic shift for the board that represents 7,493 students across eight Petaluma elementary schools and 10 secondary schools and employs a staff of 878.

Incumbents Mike Baddeley and Phoebe Ellis trailed with 14 and 13 percent respectively, meaning Chlebowski will be the only official on the five-member board with more than two years of experience.

While she wanted her fellow incumbents to win, Chlebowski recognized the need to help the newcomers get up to speed on major issues like government affairs and the district’s $74 million budget.

“I’ve got to put my big girl pants on and be a leader,” said Chlebowski, 47. “The newcomers are good people, but it’s going to be a bit of work. We have a very young board with a lot to learn.”

Cloud, 69, who taught English at Casa Grande High School, said she was grateful for all her campaign volunteers.

“I walked a lot of precincts,” she said. “The message that I heard was people didn’t feel included.”

Paun, 40, a guidance advisor at St. Vincent de Paul High School, said she was pleasantly surprised by the results that came in early Wednesday morning.

“I’m still in shock. Did that actually happen?” she said. “This has been crazy.”

She said she wants to start her term by listening to parents and finding out what issues they care about. Paun, who is black, said she thinks voters wanted to add some diversity to the all-white board.

“When I spoke to people, mainly they said we need to break up the school board,” she said. “I think they wanted to see some change. I think they wanted to see some diversity.”

The Petaluma Federation of Teachers, which has had recent acrimonious contract disputes with the district, backed Cloud, Paun and Quinn, 25, who would be the youngest member of the board. Paun said she thinks the new board will work better with the teacher’s union.

The heavy campaigning in the race seemed to sway some voters. Outside a polling place at McNear Elementary school, Chantal Rogers said she voted for the slate of challengers because she thought the incumbents had not addressed the needs of the community.

“These incumbents need to go,” she said. “The newcomers are all great. The school board has not been responsive to the teachers or the community. The new ones will take into account all stakeholder opinions.”

Challenger Kimy Ruiz Seitz, mother of Lulabel Seitz, the Petaluma High School valedictorian whose mic was cut at the June 2 commencement after she deviated from her script to talk about an alleged on-campus sexual assault, suspended her campaign but still appeared on the ballot. She received 5 percent.