ANTIOCH -- There is no shortage of candidates -- or issues -- in the upcoming Antioch Unified school board election.
Nine candidates are vying for three empty spots on the district's board of trustees, the most of any school race in Contra Costa County.
At least one trustee will be new as two-term incumbent Walter Ruehlig is running for Antioch City Council. Incumbents Diane Gibson-Gray and Claire Smith are running against retired teacher and administrator Barbara Cowan, retired school nurse Linda Anderson, psychotherapist and school counselor Debra Vinson, education nonprofit director Synitha Walker, community volunteer Zandra Raphael, teacher Jack Yeager and school maintenance man Randy Benevides.
Three years removed from serious questions about its solvency, Antioch has stayed afloat using deficit spending and finite revenue sources. In the classroom, test scores and graduation rates continue to slowly climb, but still aren't as high as some neighboring school districts.
Gibson-Gray, 56, hopes to be re-elected so she can continue to lead the district down the path it's been on the past four years.
"I think we've been successful as a district. We've made some good leadership changes, our test scores are improving, we're established more (career-themed learning) pathways and we've stayed sound fiscally as much as we can," she said.
"It's been a challenge, but we haven't had to declare that we're insolvent."
Gibson-Gray describes herself as the "spreadsheet board member," in that she is constantly analytical and critical of the district's expenses.
"As a board we are very involved at schools and events. We listen, and use what we hear to make Antioch Unified a better place," she said.
Smith, 58, is seeking her fifth term for the same reason she first sought the office back in 1995: her passion for education.
"I love seeing the little light in their eyes when they are learning something and get it," she said. "I know there's a lot of work to still be done."
Smith wants to keep the district working toward improving its academic scores and improving graduation rates, not only the number of students who graduate but making sure their degrees are meaningful so they are "ready to do what they want to do."
The district should look in the possibility of bringing the career-based learning idea into middle schools and its reading standards for those in continuation high school, Smith said.
Cowan, recently retired after 39 years as a teacher and district administrator, said she is running to continue her passion of caring for the education and well-being of children.
"It's the perfect opportunity; I have the time and the willingness to serve, along with the passion and experience," said Cowan, 65, a three-year Antioch resident. "I've been trained very well to know what good education is.
Among the issues she hopes to address is the achievement gap between white students and those with lower incomes or ethnic backgrounds.
Anderson, who sat on the district's disaster, discipline and budget subcommittees after retirement, is running because of her knowledge of the budget and other issues, including special education funds.
"I wouldn't have a steep learning curve. Plus, I can keep a level head and an open mind when it comes getting all perspectives and making decisions," she said. "We shouldn't always jump at the squeaky wheel."
Anderson, 63, wants to see Antioch be more competitive in its compensation for teachers, saying the district is becoming a place where teachers cut their teeth for a few years and move on.
"We need to work on keeping the staff that we have," she said.
In addition to placing an onus on budget transparency and encouraging parent involvement, Vinson wants to create an apprenticeship program that offers students an alternative to a four-year college.
"There are alternate routes to education. We need to find ways to motivate students and improve graduation rates," she said.
Vinson wants to place an emphasis on transparency with the district budget. It doesn't make sense nor is it fair to be portraying a message of "doom and gloom," but then say there are millions in reserve funds once the actual amount is determined, she said.
She also wants to create more opportunities for parent collaboration and input.
"I want them to come to the meetings not just because they have a problem, be interested in everything that's going on in out district, and hold us accountable," Vinson said.
Walker, 46, executive director of local student support group Parents Connected, wants to create more interaction among parents, teachers and other stakeholders with the board, while improving district transparency and accountability.
The mother of three students in district schools also wants to ensure that all students, including those in special education, receive quality education and have their needs met.
"I'm doing this for the kids. They need to be our priority," Walker said.
Raphael, 61, is the lone candidate in the race who lives in Oakley. She hopes being elected could add some representation to the area, which is partly in the AUSD.
"I think I can bring a lot of passion and enthusiasm," she said.
Raphael said some of the issues she would look to work on are student safety, and having fewer students in each classroom.
"I want to be somebody who listens to the teachers, to the kids, and to the parents," she said.
Yeager, 64, is running because he said the district needs to have a better projection of its spending and to stop depending on money it does not have.
The teacher at Pittsburg Adult Education Center also hopes to start a program in its curriculum that teaches students a better understanding of money, self-reliance and entrepreneurship.
He said Antioch must also revisit its administrative staffing levels to see if it is needlessly spending money away for duplicate teachers and administrator positions.
"What may have been fine a couple years ago may not necessarily be fine now," he said.
A four-year Antioch resident, Benevides wants to make local schools better for his grandson as he starts to attend classes.
"The test scores are lower than what I'm used to. I think I can bring some of my experience over to Antioch," said Benevides, 62, who works in maintenance for the Castro Valley school district.
Some of his goals include having fewer students per classroom, stronger discipline in the classroom and more accountability from teachers and administrators.
"There needs to be a more common-sense approach," he said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.