MARTINEZ -- Although there are still votes to count, the Martinez school board could end up with the same members who have clashed recently over how to spend bond funds.
Kathi McLaughlin and John Fuller were comfortably in the lead with more than 22 percent of the vote early Tuesday. Fellow incumbent Denise Elsken was leading Dena Betti by nearly 200 votes.
However, it's possible Betti could pull ahead because on Tuesday there were more than 64,000 mail-in ballots and 23,000 provisional ballots left to count in the county, according to the Contra Costa elections division.
This year, school trustees have been wrangling with how to stretch $45 million in bond funds to cover a long list of projects across multiple campuses. In the months before the election, a couple of split votes created some tension on the board.
According to McLaughlin, she and Vicki Gordon voted against spending $500,000 on "finishes" as part of the expansion of the performing arts building at Alhambra High School.
"That's kind of what started the faction idea," McLaughlin said. "I think there was a lot of misinterpretation of our vote, that Vicki and I are against music and against the performing arts, which isn't true."
The five-member board also split on whether to use $640,000 to fix up the dilapidated buildings that house Vicente Martinez High School and Briones Independent Study School or to spend about $5 million for a new facility for the two schools. Elsken and Fuller voted against building a new campus because it wasn't included on the original bond project list.
McLaughlin, Ron Skrehot, who stepped down in 2010 after eight years on the board, and Betti, who placed fourth in the 2010 election, ran as a slate against Fuller and Elsken.
Gordon, whose race for a seat on the Contra Costa Community College governing board was still too close to call at press time, announced her support for Skrehot and Betti on Twitter last week.
Fuller, who has been on the board for five years, pointed to the school district's strong state test scores, two distinguished school awards from the California Department of Education and improvements to facilities as evidence that the board members can work well together. Still, he acknowledged a need to build bridges.
"In the long run I think we've had a lot of success and I continue to look forward," he said. "I'm reaching out to my other board members more on a personal level because I think that will help communication going forward."
McLaughlin said she's taking a wait-and-see approach.
"I would hope that we could develop some ways to work together. I don't think we were really nasty with each other, but I do think we were impatient with each other," she said. "It's been difficult over this year or so, I would say. But I think we should have expected it -- you put money on the table and it automatically creates problems."
Elsken could not be reached for comment.
The first big test for the board may come later this month when they consider whether to look for another location to build the new campus for Vicente and Briones because the proposed site is near natural gas, gasoline and oil pipelines running under Alhambra Avenue and G Street.
McLaughlin said all of the district's schools are near pipelines.
"I don't like it, but I don't think there's a place in town that we could put a school that wouldn't be (impacted)," she said. "I'm not convinced that's a reason not to build a facility."
Fuller, however, is adamantly against it.
"I won't vote to put kids over gas lines," he said.
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.